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, January 29, 2008

The Mandrake

A man orchestrates an elaborate scheme with the help of a conspirator, the Church, and a servant to sleep with a wealthy man's wife in The Pearl Theatre Company's new foray into classical tales about sex and hijinks. Following last year's The Constant Couple, The PTC succeeds again with a hilarious production that entertains, delights and scarcely disappoints. And oh yeah, the script is by Niccolo Machiavelli. Yes, The Prince's Machiavelli.
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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Rachel Botchan must be pretty darn confident in her charm. After having just polished off the role of Lady Lurewell, a woman with numerous (albeit some unwanted) suitors in last year's The Constant Couple, she returns to play the object of one man's undying obsession in Niccolo Machiavelli's 1518 political play, The Mandrake. The reduction in the number of wooers may seem like a discredit to her character Lucrezia's appeal: it's not. Callimaco's hard work and duplicity in getting Lucrezia into bed is more than enough for a roomful of admirers to handle. Yet, unlike in The Constant Couple, it is the journey to the acquisition as opposed to the acquisition of the woman herself that is the meat here. Luckily for us, the journey is sweet.

When Parisian Callimaco (Erik Steele, a newcomer to PTC) comes to Florence with his servant Siro (Edward Seaman) in pursuit of a renowned Italian beauty, he can't believe that she actually exists in Lucrezia, the unhappy wife of the older, wealthy Messer Nicia (Dominic Cuskern). Strumming his guitar, Callimaco connects with Lucrezia's siren-like vocals as well as her form. From there, he vows to have sex with her or die, but quickly realizes that he can't hatch a plan on his own. In comes Ligurio (Bradford Cover, representing Machiavelli's insertion of his own persona into the play), an advisor of sorts, with a master plan. Since Ligurio knows that Nicia is desperate to have the son and heir that Lucrezia has yet to provide, he suggests that Callimaco implant himself into the couple's lives as a doctor. Once there, Callimaco convinces Nicia that the mandrake (a poisonous plant with branched roots that resemble a human figure and believed to have magical powers), when ingested, will increase Lucrezia's fertility. But, beware. The first man that sleeps with Lucrezia after she consumes the mandrake will surely die (yet, the mandrake won't harm her....things that make you go hmmmm). So in order to enjoy the fruits and none of the spoils, they volunteer to find a sacrificial fool that lo and behold, will actually be Callimaco. Hence, the fun begins, and goes on and on until it rolls right over Friar Timoteo (TJ Edwards), and he gets caught in the web of lies for his own (or, ahem, the Church's) financial gain.

Less political and lighter than Machiavelli's The Prince (although dramatizing its principles), Peter Constantine's translation of the Italian script creates peace between Italy and France during the Renaissance in a roundabout, double-dealing way. It also illustrates Machiavelli's perception of the Renaissance as a time of satisfying desire by any means necessary. Steele's Callimaco is wrought with desire and deception, but he lends a softness to the role that makes us forgive his cutthroat behavior. His sculpted mannerisms and antics bounce wonderfully off of Cover's physical comedy that evokes John Ritter.

Under Jim Calder's greatly manicured direction, the ensemble performs well collectively, but it is the chemistry between Steele and Cover that is truly magical. The colorful, multi-tiered appearance of the set by Harry Feiner gets more functional and enjoyable as the play progresses, with body parts and faces appearing in windows unannounced. The set also looks popped up and collapsible, but charmingly so. It works because it lends testimony to the lies that can't stay in place forever. The only frown in this otherwise happy production is the inclusion of several monologues and commentaries by the characters. Not wholly intrusive but not contributory either, the show doesn't need to be narrated in any instance to entertain or propel the plot forward.

Check your skeptical mind at the door: you'll be in for a fun time at The Mandrake. The show is visually appealing, the material is rich, and the actors are at the top of their game. The play focuses on the poison of greed, corruption, lust and deceit, the production's antidote is laughter, excitement, and enjoyment. Not only won't this production kill you; it may make your faith in theater stronger.

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Through February 10th. Tickets: $40.
The Pearl Theatre Company. 80 St. Mark's Place. New York, NY 10003.

Slaughterhouse-Five or: The Children's Crusade

Despite Joe Tantalo's interruptive "time shift" staging, Eric Simonson has adapted enough of Vonnegut's novel to thrill those familiar with Slaughterhouse-Five. It doesn't help that the acting is divisive, and although the central Billy (Gregory Konow) holds the show together with a knowing smile and Zen-like grace, the message doesn't connect, and the satire turns to clowning, clowning done atop a blood-soaked stage.

Photo/Donata Zanotti

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Watching Godlight Theatre Company's production of Slaughterhouse-Five or: The Children's Crusade didn't make me feel unstuck in time so much as stuck in a theater. The adaptation, by Eric Simonson, is a good one, but Joe Tantalo's claustrophobic direction relies too heavily on the audience being avid fans of Kurt Vonnegut. The play opens, as we shuffle in, with Man (Ashton Crosby), standing over a drain flecked with dried blood, a giant cross of metal hooks, dog tags, and helmets hovering ominously above him. The cast waits visibly in the "wings" of the studio, backs to us, equally frozen in time. The actors look amateurish, and the setting is trivialized by the space -- an audience stepping gingerly over blood to get to their seats -- and what was so forceful on the page becomes remarkably gauche. "Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds," says Man, awkwardly doing his best to ignore the audience. And then: an electric throb of piano, a rotting sound effect and a spotlight meant to signal a "time shift." (In case you missed it, the next three characters to speak will stress that Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.)

We don't get to hear the next lines from the book ("And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?’”); instead, we get brief glimpses of Boy Billy (Darren Curley), being "taught" to swim by his Dad; a more coherent view of Young Billy (Dustin Olson) passively passing through World War II, from the the trenches to the POW camps in soon-to-be-fire-bombed Dresden; and the main narrative of Billy (Gregory Konow), whose big smile and endearing personality are enough not only to make us believe in his temporal condition and alien abduction, but in the show itself.

Now, if you haven't judged this book by its cover, the play begins to work. Violent cartoons like Roland ("You ever heard of the Iron Maiden") Weary and Paul ("I'll kill you") Lazzaro are done justice by the ensemble, their comic sneers an unsettling match for their subject matter, and cryptic characters like Kilgore Trout have thick layers of pain under their jovial smiles. The play constantly breaks its momentum with the "time shift," but it always picks up speed again, with characters sometimes literally spinning from one scene and role into another. Deanna McGovern, who plays all the female parts, does a good job -- intentionally or not -- of bleeding some of her physical traits from character to character, which blurs the lines further between times, though not ever enough for us to lose ourselves in the absurdity. The closest we get is with the excellent portrayal of the alien Tralfamadorians, palm-flashlights strapped to the actors wave like palm fronds in the night.

At best, the show comes off in a rapture of helpless glee, the sort found most often on the bearded face of Mr. Konow, who smilingly engages with the audience. At worst, the show remains as unbalanced as Mr. Crosby, who coldly lectures to the thin air. The play doesn't have to make sense (and without props, it won't to those who haven't read the book), but it does need to connect with the audience, otherwise the satire is simply clowning, and the big tragedies of war (and the small daily happinesses of life) come off as weird aliens in the night.

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Slaughterhouse-Five or: The Children's Crusade
(95 min.)
Godlight Theatre Company @ 59E59: Studio C (59 East 59th Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $25.00

Performances (through 2/17): Tues. - Sat. @ 8:30 | Sat. @ 2:30 | Sun. @ 3:30

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

The dark whimsy presented in these ten vignettes is fun for the whole family.

Reviewed by Ellen Wernecke

A cursory description of "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" would only pigeonhole it as the ur-Fringe show: A combination of hand-drawn animation, silent-movie acting and live vaudeville piano, invoking fairy tales and Satan, it seems (on paper) like the kind of show destined to stay on the edges of popular theatre, despite its award as the Best of Edinburgh at last year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival. But no one who caught "Between the Devil..." at its short stay at PS122 would have described it as morbid or Gothic; even though it occasionally touches those poles, this deeply weird show was far more funny than creepy.

The show, created by the performance group 1927 (actresses Suzanne Andrade and Esme Appleton are seen on stage, with Lillian Henley at the piano, and filmmaker and co-director Paul Barritt behind the scenes), consists of 10 "terrible tales" told through film and live acting, often simultaneously. The stories aren't related, although two of them are narrated by very similar pairs of creepy sisters. Some deal directly with death, as in the opening vignette, "The Nine Lives of Choo Choo le Chat," which depicts how each of the nine lives of an unlucky cat ended. Others apply the show's magical-realist logic to subjects like door-to-door salesmen ("Sinking Suburbia") and the allure of the deep fryer ("Home Sweet Home").

These vignettes feel (and thanks to Henley's accompaniment, sound) like a series of lost shorts unearthed from a five-cent carnival booth. Andrade and Appleton have the faces and mannerisms of silent-movie actresses, and perform with impeccable timing to the films shown behind (and around) them. But the night's funniest gag was the kidnapping of an audience member to pose as "Grandma," who is dressed up by the actresses and then taken behind the screen as the film shows the tortures two sisters enact on her. Even without that participatory interlude, "Between the Devil..." is a lively and inventive little show which, pending 1927's world tour, will hopefully gain a larger audience than Fringe-goers.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Apartment 3A

Jeff Daniels asks us to try a little faith and love and faith in love in his Ghost meets Sweet November hybrid for the stage. Although this Clockwork Theatre production is often funny and romantic, the climax is predictable and uses a scenic route to tell a story that would be better told straight through.

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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Public television executive Annie Wilson (Marianna McClellan), driving around in her rented U-Haul truck, has been waiting to exhale. But when she finally does in her shabby new apartment, her breath erupts into a full-blown sob over losing the acrobatic love of her life that inspired the move. Apartment 3A, by Jeff Daniels, examines the bittersweet hereafter for Annie once the crying stops, and the hope begins.

Not long after Annie receives her apartment keys from her new landlord Dal (a comfortable Philip J. Cutrone), she receives an unwanted visit from her intrusive neighbor Donald Peterson (Doug Nyman). Left behind by his beloved wife on yet another business trip, Donald has all the time in the world to become Annie's confidante and conscience. Despite the distracting intro music by R. Canterberry Hall and Iaeden Hovorka that continues to play long past the need for it, the well-written dialogue between these would-be bosom buddies can still be heard. The set by Olga Mill, versatile only in the audience's imagination, "transforms" from Annie's sparsely furnished apartment to her TV station. There, we find Elliot Brown (Jay Rohloff), a passionate co-worker (well, at least about polar bear mating rituals) who is smitten with her.

Annie is waging a war against many things that, unfortunately, are intrinsic to her nature. She cares too much in a world that doesn't care enough. This "flaw" has soured her relationships, caused tension at a job that's under the threat of ceasing to exist, and made her question her faith, not just in the divine, but in herself. She finds a spiritual combatant in Elliot, who is happy to deliberate the specifics of his Catholic beliefs without having a firm grasp on them. Annie asks questions that are thoughtful and intelligent, and although we wish Elliot had better answers, his blind faith reflects an attitude that some people who are not religious believe the devout to have. Through his persistence and faith, Elliot hopes to convince Annie that God does exist, and that he expresses his love for mankind through love found in each other. Donald supports these ideas and Elliot's courting of Annie in fewer words.

Apartment 3A feels more like a television drama than a play. Under Owen M. Smith's direction, it unfurls in a very formulaic way. While playing a scene with Elliot, Annie concurrently receives counsel from Donald, much like a good/bad angel sitting on her shoulders. This is a strategy that repeats itself in the play, unbeknownst to Elliot. Although executed well, these three-party exchanges for the production also foreshadow the climax. And while Nyman's Donald is a snappy straight shooter who cuts right to the truth, some of the production choices and certain lines reveal more about his function in the play than they should.

The passionate sex scene between Elliot and Annie, a startling and unwarranted display given the nature of their characters, is amusing rather than primal, forced rather than freeing for several reasons. As Elliot, Rohloff is endearing because of his childlike faith. He may be a great brown-noser and romantic standby, but nothing in his actions indicate that he would dare to be as wanton as the scene suggests. Wilson's Annie alternates well between neurotic and anxious, and impulsive and spirited. But her almost floor-length skirts and buttoned-to-the-top shirts prevent her from exuding the comfort with her sexuality that this scene and her discussion of it requires.

And although Annie's broadcast speeches divulge much about her character, they come off as far too preachy. Her emotional and mental state comes out of her conversations with Elliot and Donald, and the very precipice on which this play stands: loss of who she thought was the love of her life. The pleas on camera are simply overkill, although the deliberation over Annie's warning that Sesame Street will die is a charming angle that ties to the theme of hope and faith. Apart from the intro music that trails, the remainder of the sound cues punctuate moods well with exclamations and periods.

Apartment 3A is a look at a woman's journey into self-discovery and optimism. It is about finding faith in the unlikeliest of places, and not being afraid to embrace it. Though it's vacant on surprise, it is very much occupied with passion, romance, beauty and conviction.

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Through February 16th. Tickets: $25. 212-279-4200.

Theatre Row's Beckett Theatre 410 West 42nd Street

(between 9th & 10th Avenues) New York, NY 10036

Trojan Women

The problem Alfred Preisser runs into with his adaptation and direction of Euripides' Trojan Women is that the audience he's trying to affect with lists of modern atrocities is protected by two things: first, a steel cage designed by Troy Hourle that shields us more than it imprisons them; second, a wide variety of general statements, delivered by a bland ensemble that bleeds together into a wall of sound. The play needs to step outside the box, not hide within it.

Photo/Enid Farber

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Are we just so saturated with tales of rape and violence that we're immune to it, or is it the stunting steel of the cage boxing in The Classical Theatre of Harlem's ensemble in Trojan Women that makes the work so disaffecting? There's some questionable acting in play as well, with women going through their gripes as if ticking off a grocery list, and the men acting like thoughtless brutes, but at heart, Alfred Preisser's adaptation (and direction) of the classic Euripedes play comes across like Cassandra's predictions -- filled with truth that is largely ignored.

The show takes place in several stages: in the first, we meet the prisoners, led by the dethroned Hecuba (Lizan Mitchell), her mad daughter, Cassandra (well played with equal parts resignation and disgust by Tryphena Wade), and her daughter-in-law, the ex-princess, Andromache (a fierce Linda Kuriloff). Off to the side, in a separate cage, Helen (a willowy Zainab Jah) lounges atop a broken pillar, flaunting her beauty even in defeat. As the women keen, rattling the mesh of the cage wall, they are visited by a diplomat, Talthybius (Michael Early), who in period clothing, delivers with legalese and political clout the news of their impending "marriages" (read: slavery). Early's performance, filled with restraint and verbal slips, is the highlight of the show, a chance to see modern double-talk set against classical tragedy, and a way in which to bring the crimes of the past into context with those of the present. As women are carried away, one by one, to the ships, victorious Meneleus (Ty Jones) confronts his wife. Unfortunately, his rage is overshadowed by the chorus of raging women, and Mr. Jones remains strangely desexed and detached, much like the play, even as Helen wraps herself and her words around him in an effort to save her own life.

At one point, Meneleus shouts, "Justice? That's just a word with big ideas attached to it." It's the problem that Preisser runs into with his script: the big ideas aren't conveyed with any sense of tragedy, and what should be a cumulative effect of defeats, an embarrassment of losses, becomes just another day. There's no sense of the ten years spent battling, and it almost seems like winning and losing are the same. The men may carry guns, and wear shoes, but save for a few women wearing black stockings to symbolize the absence of limbs, they're very much the same. Furthermore, where there are big ideas, there are bigger generalizations, and the specifics (citations of violence) are listed at a remove from the plot -- more importantly, from any need to speak.

By the end of Trojan Women, these much-abused women are mostly as nameless as they were at the start. The lack of personality in much of the ensemble, or the similarity of performance (blending into a bland wall of sound), holds the show back from its potential, as does the stifling set. We're accused by the actors of being complicit in their tragedy, but at the same time, we're protected by prison walls: at best, the show illustrates how little we feel for those outside our daily life. Better, I think, to step outside the box and shake things up a little.

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Trojan Women
(80 min.)
Classical Theater of Harlem @ Harlem Stage, The Gatehouse (150 Convent Avenue)
Tickets (212-281-9240): $40.00

Performances (through 2/10): Wed. - Sat. @ 7:30 | Sun. @ 3:00

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Main(e) Play

The Main(e) Play would be a lot stronger if it dropped the parenthetical aside in its title, and stuck to the main point. Right now, it's trying too hard to be clever: it needs to be honest first.

Photo/Ryan Jensen

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Two men stand in a living room, catching up on better times, days when actor Shane (Alexander Alioto) used to visit home and his cement-mixing brother Roy (Michael Gladis) more often than just Thanksgiving and Christmas. The room is a mess of beer and toys, and director Robert O'Hara frequently keeps it lit in the staid glow of late-late-night television. Theatrically, it's a Kodak moment that shows the history between these brothers, and its now haphazard remains. But then Shane opens his mouth, spinning an argument out of one of the many scenes that happen offstage, referring to a character (Roy's seven-year-old monster of a son) that we never see, and pulling up a history that seems more anecdotal than real: "Do you want to tell each other things, Roy?" he asks. "OK. Let's tell each other things." This is the problem at the heart of Chad Beckim's The Main(e) Play: the characters all tell each other what's happening.

Why so much exposition? Well, Mr. Beckim's excellent with language, but not with editing. In 'nami, the strong characters and desperate social situations limited what he could and couldn't say; in Lights Rise on Grace, he used monologues to build into solid scenes later, speaking directly through his cast. In The Main(e) Play, he's stuck with a bland plot and somewhat redundant characters, and his unique descriptions ("It looks like Mr. Rogers and Captain Kangaroo had a gang bang in here") are sorely out of place. He's not helped by O'Hara, either: the play sags from lengthy but nondescript scene changes, and unessential movements -- like the up-the-aisle entrance to the house -- are overemphasized. Characters are misused, too: we could use more of Shane's old flame Jess (Susan Dahl, the only actor to really use that accent), and less of his rival, Rooster (Curran Conner's excellent in the role, but Roy makes his part redundant).

I use words like "sag" and "stuck" to illustrate that there's something worth saving at the core, and in this case it's the feeling of becoming an alien in one's own home. By making his main character an actor, he gets to play with the omnipresent illusion of theater, and when Shane exclaims that he's tired of playing pretend, it's a powerful moment. Furthermore, while the play seems as cluttered with extra scenes and unconnected rants, I've never seen Mr. Alioto so vulnerable or Mr. Gladis so solid. As Shane, Alexander is channeling the smarmy attitude from Nelson, but mixing in a real sense of loss; as Roy, Michael is threatening with just a whisper, and when he has to speak seriously, his voice is strangled with the sad sort of strength that comes from being a single father.

The Main(e) Play would be a lot stronger if it dropped the parenthetical aside in its title, and stuck to the main point. Right now, it's trying too hard to be clever: it needs to be honest first.

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The Main(e) Play (90 min.)
Partial Comfort Productions @ Lion Theater/Theater Row (410 West 42nd Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $18.00
Performances (through 2/9): Wed. - Sat. @ 8:00

Thursday, January 24, 2008

MOSHEH: A VideOpera

Reviewed by Eric Miles Glover

I recently attended a workshop of MOSHEH: A VideOpera, one of 16 projects in development at the HERE Arts Center in SoHo, on display for Culturemart 2008. The opera, created and composed by Yoav Gal, employs the grammars of performance and technology to reenact the story of Moses from the bible. If the quality of the excerpts reflects the quality of the larger opera, I highly recommend that readers see the full-length production as soon as it opens.

I was really impressed with the musical score. The excerpts featured compositions for piano, voice, flute, clarinet, and saxophone that complemented the dramaturgy of the opera, and piqued and sustained my interest. For example, the excerpts possessed distinguishable melodies that guided me through the non-English language opera and served as through lines for the principal characters. Moreover, the seamless combination of pedestrian movement, video projection, and virtuoso singing (especially for "Tinok") was unforgettable.

The cast of singers--Judith Barnes, Hai-Ting Chinn, Heather Green, Julia Arazi, Cara Maltz, Deborah Radloff, and Faith Wu--deserves commendation for the expert expressiveness of the vocals. Moreover, Kristin Marting's direction, in combination with Yoav Gal's video design, Gal and Heather Green's costume design, and Juliet Chia's lighting design, furnished the opera with a surreal atmosphere that blurred the boundaries between space and time, and provided a temporary respite from normal life. At the same time, the hybridity of MOSHEH (the opera employed elements from dance, multimedia, music, and theater) facilitated a humanistic exploration of spirituality.

I am eager to experience the full-length opera.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Widows


Nature on stage is almost always thrilling. Bringing the outdoors inside, and into a fabricated set – a fabricated world – can provide a vibrant shock to the viewer: a reminder, if you will, of how you are watching a performance, something unnatural, yet something unquestionably connected to the natural. However, even the rush of nature isn’t enough to sustain this evening of theater.

Review by Amanda Cooper

The narrow set of Widows extends almost the entire length of 59E59’s Studio B, pushing the audience out onto the borders of the space around the stage. Jutting up from one side of the pale pine raised floor is a tree, its branches ending just short of the ceiling. The tree is barren, but it is effective, peaceful, and dark. This is not the only well-executed use of nature in this play – at times there are sudden splashes of water, and even bright brown dirt. Unfortunately, these elements are by far the strongest aspects of this production. Widows is a play unsure of its identity, and Reverie’s production, a New York premiere, fails to focus the work.

With eighteen actors (and even more characters), Widows takes place in an unnamed Latin American town, during an unspecified year. As playwright Ariel Dorfman is a contemporary politically minded Chilean author, we can assume the country is Chile. From the costumes and the country’s history, we can assume the time is the 1970s, when political turmoil led to the disappearance of many citizens. But there is nothing in the production (or even any program notes) to help the average (educated) New York viewer gain this information. What is clear though, is that this is a village filled with potentially widowed women and families, and all the men (save a few government placed soldiers, a boy, and the priest) have either been killed or kidnapped. And now, as the country attempts to move forward, an army captain transferred to town must navigate the sorrow, loss, and coping mechanisms of this community of women who pine for their husbands, brothers and sons. Leading these women is daughter, wife, mother, and grandmother Sofia (Ching Valdez-Aran), whose losses have left her unwilling to move from the riverbank. The play’s setup feels like a fable, and the performers’ melodramatic presentation does, too. Yet all the plot points are grounded in reality – everything that happens is plausible.

Director Hal Brooks is skilled at moving actors naturally around a playing space, but even so, the stage often feels crowded with too large a number of actors for the square footage provided. Brooks has also created a worn, abused energy appropriate for the play’s dire situation. Yet these elements often overshadow the most compelling characters – not the ones with a clear moral center, but those filled with inner conflict, such as Mark Alhadeff’s Captain, or Veronica Cruz’s affecting portrayal as the married Cecilia, who has found new love with a soldier. As the widows, in their Greek Chorus-like state, desperately claw for closure from their past, the play searches for a message beyond “violence and political turmoil bring out the worst in even good people.” The story's content and context seems slated to reach further. Is there not more exploration to be done with nature, and its contrast with our man-made wars? But that’s just one element for thought. In a country currently in a seemingly endless war, we can - we should - expect more from our wartime plays.

Monday, January 21, 2008

North

Heather Christian and the Arbornauts could've chosen a better theatrical vehicle to widen their exposure than the crashing plane of their new show, North, but given the seemingly unlimited range of Mrs. Christian's voice, the packaging hardly matters. She's absolutely arresting, one of the few female singers I've seen who can honestly be called a siren.

Photo/Courtland Premo

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Heather Christian and the Arbornauts could've chosen a better theatrical vehicle to widen their exposure than the crashing plane of their new show, North, but given the seemingly unlimited range of Mrs. Christian's voice, the packaging hardly matters. She's absolutely arresting, one of the few female singers I've seen who can honestly be called a siren (after her ability to freeze her upper register and vibrate it so it sounds like the wailing of a melodic police car). That shouldn't excuse the ambiguity of the wintry set, or the static snow and loopy graphics of the sundry televisions, but it does. Had the actual theater been as cold as the "plot," I'd have sat through it to hear Heather lilt through covers of The Decemberists ("The Engine Driver") and Cyndi Lauper ("All Through The Night"), not to mention her own songs, like the titular "North."

The show itself exists in the dreamy poetics of metaphor, from a silent entrance up the audience aisle (with poses struck in the snapshots of light between transitioning blackouts) all the way up to the identical ending. There is no dialogue beyond the distant recorded voice of a pilot: the story is told entirely by the music, with the assistance of a few dances that look like flight attendants hyperventilating their way -- in sync -- through the pantomimes of airline safety. Like the frosted trees that roll from the wings onto the stage, this is just trim and icing that frames a set list in much the same way that a teenager cleverly stitches together a series of disparate songs into playlist with a clever title.

North has a unifying force, however, a polarizing, truly magnetic north that points the way forward, and that's Heather Christian. The audience may not be able to guess that what appears to be a puppet show of a flaming airplane jettisoning debris onto a dying tree below is actually the supposed origin of the Arbornauts , born of "packages of love" that blossom within a tree. But they can follow the cryptic love song "Jet Thrust and Blushes," guided like its singer "So, so, so high you were, there was a highway up to you." There are moments of static distraction, and the band isn't yet as cohesive as they should be (I couldn't think of a reason they'd be singing off pitch), but that's just a little turbulence. And as the pilot says, "Sit back, relax . . . or lean forward all twisted up, the choice is really yours."

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North
(65 min.)
Heather Christian and the Arbornauts @ LaMaMa ETC (74A East 4th Street)

Tickets (212-475-7710): $15.00

Performances (through 2/2): Thurs. - Sat. @ 10:00 | Sun. @ 5:30

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Slaughterhouse Five or The Children's Crusade

Science fiction, war trauma and survival mechanisms are stirred together until there are practically no lumps in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse -Five or: The Children's Crusade. Purposeful and sharp direction, chameleonic actors, and a comprehensive adaptation of the novel make this experience existential, ethereal and cerebral, but those who are not open-minded about breaking theatrical barriers may not appreciate the sensory overload............................................................................
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade, is one of his most popular works, widely regarded as a classic. Drawing heavily from his experience as a prisoner of war during World War II, Vonnegut focuses on his psychological trauma with a science fiction lens while waxing poetic on the global human condition. And to top it all off, he uses time travel as a plot device. A veritable goldmine of concepts, inventiveness and vision, adapting the novel for the stage can either be a daunting task or a dream come true. Fortunately for playwright Eric Simonson and director Joe Tantalo, their collaboration makes it look like a piece of cake. And for the patron that likes a little bit of indulgence, this production hits many of the right spots.

When American soldier Billy Pilgrim is captured during the Battle of the Bulge by German soldiers, his lack of training in combat and his lack of conviction as a chaplain's assistant shines through. He's 23, and ill-prepared mentally and emotionally for the carnage that lies ahead. Billy, along with other prisoners, is transported to a slaughterhouse in Dresden that the Germans use as a makeshift prison. While holed up in there, air raids rain down on Dresden, forcing the prisons and their guards to retreat into a deep cellar to survive. Few make it out alive, and when Billy and the others return to the surface, they have to deal with the mayhem and massacre that awaits them.

From there, Billy becomes "unstuck" in time (not limited by chronology) through undefined means, and begins to randomly and repeatedly visit different stages of his life, from his combat time to civilian time with his wife. Although not the catalysts for his new condition, aliens from a planet named Tralfamadore (represented wonderfully by kneeling men with swaying lights in their palms) who see in four dimensions (the fourth being time) rather than three give him insight on his experiences. They introduce fatalism as the frame for what is happening to Billy.

Godlight Theatre Company's production of Slaughterhouse Five is a marvelous feat that would have crumbled if everyone involved wasn't so committed, talented and disciplined. Production designer Maruti Evans splatters blood on the floor and suspends dog tags and helmets from the ceiling on large hooks that unmistakably and metaphorically emulate the butchery of the soldiers. It is a visual that keeps the audience grounded in the reality that inspires the fantastical elements of the play. Joe Tantalo's strong and purposeful direction keep the cast of ten in line, and his corralling skills are needed for the limited performance space of Theater C at 59 E 59th street theatres. Movement director Hachi Yu and fight choreographer Josh Renfree work wonders to emulates the rapidness in which Billy's life scenes unfold in this production, making every cinema-like vignette fluid and well-constructed. Sound designer Andrew Recinos creates original music that catapult you to the war scenes, but pointedly, they're not places that you want to stay in for long. The cast is generally impressive, but Aaron Paternoster distinguishes himself as the character actor and Gregory Konow is reflective of post-traumatic stress disorder in a subtle way as adult Billy Pilgrim. As the actress embodying all of the female characters, Deanna McGovern holds her own against the boys.

Although the play doesn't explore Billy's affluent life as an optometrist, the second major theme in the novel, this production is still very comprehensive and flattering to the original material. It keeps almost all of the senses invested and like the novel, challenges conventional storytelling. Though an exciting production, those who don't like plot scrambles and theory intersections will be perturbed. Chaotic until the quiet, seemingly incomplete ending, Slaughterhouse Five is part anti-war, part absurdist fantasy, and all intellectually stimulating. It is a must- see for not only Vonnegut fans, but for those who don't like traditional theater.

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Through February 17th. Tickets: $25 212-279-4200
59E59's Theater C 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison

Avenues, New York, NY 10025




Friday, January 18, 2008

Widows

Widows is a political play that digs remarkably deep, showing the stubbornness, futility, fearfulness, and courage of passive resistance -- and of military governance. Ariel Dorfman's script is best when it wells up into a rapids of sound that could smash even the sturdiest of rocks on the shore, but director Hal Brooks has done a solid job throughout, confining the action to a raft of a stage that, while occasionally tilting, is never in danger of sinking.

Photo/Colin D. Young

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

At the bend in the river where the women do their wash, sits an old woman, Sofia (Ching Valdes-Aran), the fierce and stubborn grandmother of the Fuentes family. Sitting there, she is as still as the dead tree leaning out of the river; eyes full of sadness, she looks as raw as the wooden planks that make up the river bank. She is the living embodiment of the political paradox at the heart of Ariel Dorfman's excellent play, Widows: she waits because she cannot bear waiting.

With her four missing men, a father, husband, and two children, she represents the pain and hope of the village (widows all save a priest and her thirteen-year-old grandson), a group of otherwise weak-willed women who lose themselves in the routines of labor, refusing to speak the names as if that small mercy will now allow them to trust in the very military that abducted their men. Though her own daughter, Fidelia (Ana Cruz Kayne) has turned against her, desperate to believe the Captain's (Mark Alhadeff) razor promises, she knows what comes of men who say things like: "We are ready to forgive your disobedience if you are willing to forget our stern response to it, if you learn to behave." Even when a body floats out of the river, the villagers remain shadows of themselves, fearful of the vicious Lieutenant (Guiesseppe Jones) but more so of the nameless corpse that are afraid to claim -- in yet another paradoxical moment, the climax of the play, the women chant as one: "It's mine, oh please don't let it be mine."

For a political play, Widows digs remarkably deep, following not only the deep-rooted nature of fear, but also the internal clash between the military kindness (another paradox) and brute strength, the difference between the rich landowners and the poor peasants, and the frail attempts of a woman to carry on not just tradition, but culture. To that end, Hal Brooks directs the play like a river itself, surrounding the set on three sides by the audience, and narrowing the action to a thin strip of dying land, where the butts of rifles and the faceless bodies are at their most intimidating. The action flows quickly from scene to scene, bubbling up every now and then into a most magnificent Greek chorus of rapids, a babble of insistent voices that break our hearts upon the rocks. In this sense, Brooks is able to steer clear of some of the uneven actors, overlapping their voices and plowing through where he cannot avoid the worst of it. He also knows enough to go with the flow: in Act I, Mr. Jones overflows with malicious glee and several of the weeping widows crow instead of keen, but by Act II, the solid shoulders of Mrs. Valdes-Aran and the wincing mustache of Mr. Alhadeff help them dry off.

The play wonders if it is possible to build a democracy on lies and dead bodies; the answer is no. But if you throw in a mass of wailing women; a narrow, confrontational set; logically twisted lines; and a menacing phalanx of soldiers indistinguishable from dead bodies, then you can build a stirring play.

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Widows (2 hrs. 15 min.)
59E59 Theatres: Studio B
Tickets (212-279-4200): $20.00
Performances (through 2/3): Tues. - Sat. @ 8:15 | Sun. @ 3:15

Under the Radar Festival: Low: Meditations Trilogy Part 1

Photo by Jean Jacques Tiziou
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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

The British duo Floetry became popular in 2002 for their fusion of r&b, soul, neo soul and hip hop. It is this fusion that also defines their namesake. Tack on politics and social activism, and you'll get Rha Goddess (Rhamelle Green), the hip hop artist who allegedly coined the term floetry and who became the inspiration for all who operate within this genre. Rha builds upon this foundation with a portrayal of mental illness in Low:Meditations Trilogy Part 1. However, despite an earnest plea for the prevention and solving of mental disorders with love rather than medication, there are simply too many production flaws for the show to stand firm on its resolve.


Rha portrays rapper-hopeful Lowquesha (Low for short), a seemingly normal girl growing up in a harshly-disciplined, urban household until she draws attention to herself with a classroom confrontation with a teacher. The need for counseling arises, and after a few probing questions to which there are only green flag responses, Low is saddled with a bunch of rash disorder diagnoses and drug prescriptions anyway. She proceeds to make typical teenage mistakes involving sex and rebellion that can be tied to her upbringing, but she also has the added concerns of determining the right combination of pills to take to get her through her days. She doesn't always succeed. Cracks in the formula caused by forgetfulness, economics and negligence cause her behavior and cognition to become erratic, and she steadily gets worse. Violence against her mother during a drug imbalance lands her in jail and in the hospital, and to make matters worse, she suddenly finds herself homeless as a result of her rage. Troublesome before, her life becomes hellish while trying to survive on the street. Her "eviction" inspires "Battle Song", an ode to the anguish she feels towards her mother for kicking her out. And to top it off, she has a sister who's doing well and can't be bothered to help her, a friend who's only down for the good times, and a no-good boyfriend who disappears when she needs him the most.

Through the use of amateurish voice-overs and her own impressions, Rha incorporates several characters into her one-woman show, but they are not always distinct. For instance, when she represents Low's sister in her earlier years, her babyish voice does not deviate from Low's, and this same childish tone survives throughout her teenage years as well. The haphazard lighting design by Sabrina Hamilton does not support the variance in Rha's moods, and always seems one step behind in congruence. Rha is a charming and entertaining performer, but her performance here lacks the training she needs to tackle the density of this piece. She does a good job of illustrating her opinions about the hypocrisy in psychiatry and what is acceptable as a mental illness through her observations and commentary about coffee addicts, but some of her other points are derivative. Under Chay Yew's direction, Rha alienates the audience by spending a good portion of her stage time with her back to them. In addition, there are several instances where her spiral into lunacy is prolonged beyond necessity. However, the scene in which she delivers verse while twitching demands attention. Low's aspirations to become a rapper are explored through several songs, but the efforts are lukewarm. Sister Souljah, another activist and MC, comes to mind as a comparison, but Rha's impression is not as strong. However, I should also note that Sister Souljah does not prescribe to the floetry style of music. The show concludes with a lecture about how the spread of mental disorders is akin to HIV, and some suggestions such as love and understanding to curb the contagion. Although a profound point, it should have been expressed in the play, and not as an afterthought resembling a public service announcement. An earnest effort, this show needs a lot of work before it can start the revolution that it appears to have been designed for.

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Through January 20th...THE PUBLIC THEATER


425 Lafayette StreetTickets: $15Click here to order tickets online Or call 212-967-7555 (Mon-Sun, 10AM-9PM)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Under The Radar (Off-Site)

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio


-Small Metal Objects

Photo/Jeff Busby

It's a feeling most peculiar for a New Yorker, this sense of tuning in. And that's just one of the conventions that Back to Back Theater turns on its head for the site-specific piece, Small Metal Objects. Not only is it unusual for an audience to gather in the crowded South Ferry terminal during the height of commuter traffic, but it's discomforting for the commuters themselves to see hundreds of eyes suddenly focused on their very anonymity. It's even more unusual to find ourselves rooting for such little guys: Gary (Sonia Teuben) and Steve (Simon Laherty), with their slouched postures or diminutive size, their slow, easy going speech, and long, contemplative pauses, are far from the heroes we expect. But that's the point, isn't it? To focus in on the sort of person you'd normally ignore, and to actually listen for a moment, to remember, as Gary optimistically opines: "Everything has a value."

That said, Small Metal Objects begins rather tantalizing, by allowing us to hear Gary and Steve speak before we can pick them out of the crowd. For fifteen minutes, there's a sense of telepathic deepening, as if we are hearing two strangers and growing to understand their characters, to really perceive them, an effect deepened by Hugh Covill's repetition of electronic chords. When at last we locate Gary in the crowd, it's like finally meeting an e-correspondent: not what you'd expected, but not disappointing either. We also have the benefit of a slight story that makes us further sympathize with him: he's being met by a tall, handsome man, Alan (Jim Russell), who wishes to buy some drugs from him. Yes; that's another flip of conventions: we're rooting for the drug dealer, and against the handsome man.

Back to Back Theater's mission is to give light to these underdogs, the people excluded from the norm because of perceived or imagined disabilities, and Small Metal Objects proves how deserving we each are of a voice. When Alan's colleague Carolyn (Genevieve Morris) shows up to cajole Steve into allowing the transaction, she tries every trick in the book to move Steve, but her distaste is apparent from the get-go, and only solidified when she growls: "You're standing here dying when you could be living." As if, because Steve is different, or because he's prone to metaphysical meltdowns, he is somehow less of a person. If anything, he's better off: he has a friend like Gary, a friend who won't assail his character, and who bravely accepts him as he is, doing his best "to see you more happy than depressed."

The plot may be slight, but it's utterly compelling and suspenseful because of how close the action is. We may know what's going on, but the pedestrians -- accidental extras -- don't, and that gives the play a frisson of unpredictability, or greater still, the poetics of the ordinary, as when a pigeon flapped by, exactly to the cue of a long, hopeful, electronic thrum. For a moment, we have stopped our busy lives, looked around, and really listened. And that's the most beautiful thing of all.

-Of All The People in the World: USA

Photo/Ed Dimsdale

Speaking of stopping our busy lives, the installation Of All The People in the World, an international production from Stan's Cafe making its premiere in the World Financial Center, is an excellent reminder of how powerful the visual is. The premise is simple: take five tons of rice, use one grain for each person, and then convert stats into mounds of rice. Some stats are serious, as with a series of comparisons between the number of citizens of Chad needed to produce as much carbon dioxide as citizens from the lowest ranking country (Congo) to the highest (Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the US). Some stats are irreverent: "Number of Taxi Drivers in New York City" as opposed to "Robert DeNiro." Others are cute: "Number of viewers for the final episode of "'Sex and the City'" versus "Single Women in Manhattan." Some are terrifying: there are about as many millionaires in the world as there are refugees (and they're both larger piles than you'd think).

As one continues through the exhibition, the staggering volume starts to add up. One starts to compare even unrelated stacks, coming up with their own valuation for all those little granular lives, growing invested in the correlations, and heartsick at some of the stats. There's no way to avoid the lurch in one's gut at seeing how much "rice" was born today as opposed to how much "rice" died. It's unfathomable how Sub-Saharan Africa could be so riddled with AIDS. Numbers on the page can be reasoned with, ignored. The sheer willfulness of counting and displaying all that rice, its obtuseness in the midst of a business sector: these things make the facts unavoidable, and all the more powerful.

The exhibit changes on a regular basis, and sells little gift bags that allow you take take home a representative "Hillary Clinton" (for example), but don't dismiss these commercial tools as gimmickry: Of All The People in the World: USA is not only powerful, it's completely free.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Who Do You Love?: A Gospel Musical Stageplay

Full of incidental music, original numbers, and gospel standards, as well as a book that combines comedic and dramatic writing, Who Do You Love? is an entertaining work that demonstrates the potential of musicals with religious faiths as the concentrations.

Reviewed by Eric Miles Glover

Who Do You Love?: A Gospel Musical Stageplay
follows the trials and tribulations of leaders and members of the congregation of an African-American megachurch. Meet Nisa Armstrong, administrative and personal assistant to the leaders of the church, also a victim of domestic violence; see C. J. Zachs, both a reverend and an adulterer. At the same time, the musical follows the plan of Councilman Hanes, the embodiment of evil, to raze an apartment building that is adjacent to the church and subject the larger neighborhood to gentrification. However, the leaders and members of the megachurch neither solve personal problems nor recognize the plan of Hanes until the entrance of Hadassah St. James brings about healing.

Hadassah, the focus of the musical, is a follower of Christ with the power to nurse spirits to health and spread the good news. However, she maintains a weak relationship with Christians, and the Christian religion in general, as a result of experiences from the past. At the same time that Who Do You Love? follows Hadassah as she restores the megachurch to splendor, the musical follows Hadassah as she resists and then strengthens the spiritual life that she leads.

Full of incidental music, original numbers, and gospel standards (for example, "He Looked Beyond My Fault," "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," "I'll Fly Away," and "Woke Up This Morning with My Mind on Jesus"), as well as a book that combines comedic and dramatic writing, Who Do You Love? is an entertaining work that demonstrates the potential of musicals with religious faiths as the concentrations, though there are a few characterizations and subplots that can benefit from further development. For example, the leaders and members of the megachurch do not censure Eric Armstrong for domestic violence, as if the fact that he confesses to God is adequate. However, the writing, as well as the singing and comic timing of the ensemble, suppress criticism. Understudies Emily King and Dawn Richardson performed the roles of "Nisa Armstrong" and "Hadassah St. James" at the performance that I attended. Both King and Richardson were stellar. Actors Kathy Hazzard and Steven Strickland were stellar as well in the roles of "Sissy Jones" and "C. J. Zachs."

A gospel musical for believers and nonbelievers, Who Do You Love? offers both entertainment and healing.

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Who Do You Love?: A Gospel Musical Stageplay.
Book by Shaunda Erikka, lyrics by Darrell Alston, Erica Campbell, Erikka, and Windy Barnes Farrell, and music by Campbell and Farrell.
Presented by Damascus Productions (Erikka, director) and Richmond Shepard.
Through Saturday, January 19th, 8:00 PM at the Richmond Shepard Theatre, 309 East 26 Street, Manhattan, (212) 352-3101. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Amazons and Their Men

Jordan Harrison writes with a director's fluid grace, connects scenes with an editor's masterfully sudden sequencing, contrasts characters in the film with those in the play like a verbal cinematographer, and ultimately comes away with an elegant piece.

Photo/Carl Skutsch

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Jordan Harrison's new play, Amazons and Their Men, is a clever work of fiction that investigates the escapism of film during a time in which the world was being plunged into darkness. Loosely following the real-life attempts of Leni Riefenstahl to film herself as and in Penthesilea, Harrison writes with a director's fluid grace, connects scenes with an editor's masterfully sudden sequencing, contrasts characters in the film with those in the play like a verbal cinematographer, and ultimately comes away with an elegant piece.

Amazons opens with a literal direction, as the Frau (a fantastic and commanding Rebecca Wisocky) describes the scene from the darkness: "Interior. Night." It's a common device of Harrison's to have the characters narrate their own lives, but here, under the context of filmmaking, it seems perfectly natural -- especially for Riefenstahl. As the lights rise, she speaks the poetics of the film, "The camera first sees her reflected in a lion's eye," which enables the play, text spooling through the projectors of our mind, to take on a cinematic layer. We are soon joined by the Man (Brian Sgambati), a "dark-eyed man from the Ghetto" whom she'd like to more than just cast as her lover, Achilles, and The Extra (Heidi Schreck), who has a talent not just for dying, but for dying "inconspicuously," the faithful shadow for her dominating sister. The tale takes on another dimension when a messenger, The Boy (Gio Perez) is cast as Achilles' best friend, Patroclus, especially as the sliver of eroticism between them on camera translates to a world that cannot see such acts as normal, let alone full of art.

As the Frau says, "the real world chatters on," a point driven by the insistent narration of the characters within it (poetically, too, what with descriptions of things like the "incense censing"). And though she tries to build a new one in her film ("Where else will we go when this one ends?"), she is trapped by the further chatter of telegrams, her sister's morality, and the unfolding war, a war which remains always just slightly out of frame (outsiders are always far upstage, shrouded in darkness). Best still, because Harrison's narrative is able to cut easily between time, character, and thought (and better still, to blend them), he is able to control the pace at which that war advances, but without being predictable.

What works best in Amazons and Their Men is the way in which Harrison contrasts scenes from the film with slices from the Frau's real world, a world that -- try as she might -- she cannot control. This effect is bolstered by Ken Rus Schmoll's direction, which clearly cuts between the film's Amazon battles and the play's Nazi shadow, as well as by Sue Rees's rolling platform of a set, a piece that, like the cavernous Ohio Theater, leaves much to our imagination. The contrast is also strengthened by Kirche Leigh Zeile's costumes, which are the bright imaginative fancies of the film world (white Amazonian garb, solid breastplates and red capes), showing directly the way in which the idealisms of the film die when viewed by those who are repressed.

Few plays connect manage to connect theme, plot, and character, but Jordan Harrison, along with the fantastically creative Clubbed Thumb company, has managed it with Amazons and Their Men.

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Amazons and Their Men (80 min.)
Clubbed Thumb @ Ohio Theater (66 Wooster Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $25.00
Performances (through 1/26): Thurs. - Tues. @ 8:00

Monday, January 14, 2008

Under the Radar (Day 3): Generation Jeans, Terminus, Disinformation

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

- Generation Jeans
Photo/Natalia Koliada

If Nikolai Khalezin were to perform Generation Jeans in his home country of Belarus, in a public theater, he'd be thrown in jail as a "political," given the silver scoop of a spoon (the whole spoon might be used to commit murder, as if, Nikolai observes, a wall wouldn't do just as well), and confined to cramped quarters during his imprisonment. But he performs anyway, secretly, in private apartments, because he is a jean-wearing freedom fighter, and though it is dangerous to shout "I am free" when the black club of a policeman is swinging toward ones face, it is a phrase he knows must be said.

With so much weighty relevance behind it, Generation Jeans doesn't need to be very theatrical, and the majority of the show is simply Nikolai sitting on a high stool, speaking directly to us. It works, because Nikolai's lack of refinement speaks toward a greater honesty; he is one of those rare performers not trying to dazzle us, but simply trying to speak what must be said, in the only way he knows. That said, it is somewhat odd to see a DJ on stage with him (Lavr Berzhanin, a k a DJ Laurel), especially since the samples of music used are mostly electronic beats that don't tie into Nikolai's biographical tale of growing up craving AC/DC or The Sex Pistols. But even this device generally works: Nikolai speaks so plainly, without exaggeration or the all-too-common frenzy or caricature of solo performers, that his text keeps the music in the background, allowing it to filter through only for a meditative emphasis, which it successfully does for two of the key moments of tragic catharsis.

For a show that is for the most part performed so plainly (it even remains in the original language, with subtitles to guide us), Generation Jeans still manages to wake us up to the power of imagination, especially as Nikolai stands on stage, his arms wrapped around the flimsy bars of a representative cage, quietly envisioning verdant, emerald green meadows, or the noisy but wide open, sunset streaked runway of La Guardia Airport, thinking of anything, everything, that will help him continue on.

- Terminus

Photo/Ros Kavanagh

If it weren't for Mark O'Rowe's clever verse (e.g., smitten/admitten, invective/ineffective, identical/antithetical) and graphic language, it would've been hard to sit through his ninety minute triptych of monologues, Terminus. Harder still given the taste of thick smoke in the air and the dim and sideways illuminated sight of the actors on stage. But the language justifies the appearance of demons (composed of worms), easy-going psychopaths, and matter-of-fact violence by elevating it to the metaphor of poetry. Though I'm not sure there's a hidden meaning to a man swinging from a crane by his entrails with a demons barbed tail sticking out of his mouth as he sings "Wind Beneath My Wings," it seems not only plausible in O'Rowe's world, but oddly humorous, too, an impressive feat for such a dark piece. (It brings to mind similarly glamorous works of violence, like The Lieutenant of Inishmore.)

Watching Terminus is much like looking at one's own reflection through a broken mirror, which is why Jon Bausor's set -- a shattered pane, with the actors each standing on and beneath large slivers of glass -- is so effective. While the darker schisms of the play are hopefully not a part of our souls, the basic characters are: Andrea Irvine, for instance, plays a counselor who only takes up violence after she is much abused by a violent girl named Celine, and the only sin of Eileen Walsh's character is that she so badly wants a man that she loses herself, literally, for one. As for the mass-murderer, he is played so glibly by Aidan Kelly (think of Ciaran Hinds's performance in The Seafarer as Mr. Lockhart), that we actually sympathize with a shyness so overwhelming that it leads him to constant crime. These performances, given without a trace of poetic showmanship, are what ultimately ground the fantasies of the show, and while the ending isn't exactly the blast of white revelatory redemption that's foreshadowed, it is a satisfying close to one heck of a ride.

- Disinformation

There isn't a person out there who will leave Disinformation saying anything negative about Reggie Watts's voice: the man is an aural artist, capable of many octave-spanning notes, and that's without the assistance of his voice modulators and track-recorders, two twinned devices that let him layer distortions upon distortions upon himself. However, this show seems more like a sampler of what he can do than a statement of anything worth saying, and one of his faux-corporate slogans rings a little too close to home: "The More That You Use, The Less That You Are."

That said, there isn't a person going to Disinformation who won't be amused. From his satirical intellectualizing (his stuffy accents are enjoyable) to his retro film clips, Reggie Watts really knows how to pick his words carefully (even at their most vulgar, his "Shit Fuck Sandwich" rap is still eerily specific). It's not clear where a heart-to-heart between son and father comes in, but his mispronunciation of words like "Swiss" and "balcony" ("swize" and "balconey") is funny, as is his description of a gay night club: "It was so club. There was a floor, a ceiling, and some sort of thing that keeps those two apart." For that matter, so is his constant deadpan, a tact emphasized by his office casual look, and his too-small tie, or simply the way he unapologetically asserts himself: "Whether you're a man or a woman, or simply a man." It's nonsense, but a nonsense that we can enjoy.

Whether providing sound effects for Amy O'Neal's dancing or warbling alongside Orianna Herman, his sheer ability will always ensure he has an audience. But whether or not Reggie Watts can actually use his myriad talents to tell a story, as The Suicide Kings have with their spoken word drama, In Spite of Everything, or if he's content to just play around with short skits in various forms of mixed media . . . that's entirely up to him.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Under the Radar (Day 2, cont.): Low: Meditations Trilogy Part 1, Regurgitophagy

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

- Low: Meditations Trilogy Part 1
Photo/Jean Jacques Tiziou

Low opens with a blank slate: an empty chair on one of those white-floored and white-walled setups most familiar from a modeling session or an Apple commercial. What follows is, if you will permit the pun, a monologued bit of white-box theater, a tale from Rha Goddess about Loquitia, a precocious girl who thinks that her teacher is racist to associate Langston Hughes with predecessor Walt Whitman, but young enough to still get into food fights with her sister. These endearing moments carry the show for the first fifteen minutes; Mrs. Goddess gets a high modulation in her pitch to sound purposefully cute, and her free movements around the space give her both attitude and grace.

That's just the prologue: Low is subsequently diagnosed with being depressed, and when she stops taking her medication (so that she can get back to the rapping she yearns to be a part of), she ends up losing even her shitty Starbucks job and moving into the streets to make her own way, a way that ultimately has her giving blow jobs to a McDonald's manager, just so that she can use the bathroom. Her humiliation doesn't end there -- she starts to get physical side-effects that involve uncontrollable spasms and tics, and though she still has sense enough to make fun of the other homeless people, she doesn't realize how far gone she's becoming.

Rha Goddess doesn't seem to notice how far gone her play is either; she's so caught up in preserving the physicality of the character that we get very little of the actual emotion, beyond that which we create from our own fears and automatic empathies. Low wants to be a rapper, but we only ever see her jumping about lip syncing to other rapper's words, which locks us out from Low's inner voice, leaving us only with cold observations. And though Low is forced to endure much humiliation, you'd never be able to tell that from Rha's performance: the words tell us one thing, but her poise tells us another, and while I understand pride, what happens on stage is more a means to armor herself. Where the play finally connects is during a personal epilogue (Rha herself, or as Ana, Low's sister, it isn't clear) that at last allows us to see Low as another person does.

Meditations is an accurate description of this trilogy, for if the first part is any indication, these characters are all internalized and thought out, rather than experienced. Chay Yew has done an excellent job of casting cages of light on the floor, and moving his actor across the stage, but it's up to Rha to show us something more. Right now, Low is just talk, and it's nothing we haven't heard before.

- Regurgitophagy

Photo/Debora 70

I'm sure that Michel Melamed's Regurgitophagy is a great stream-of-consciousness play: I say this because it's one of my fundamental beliefs that you should always give a man who is electrocuting himself the benefit of the doubt. But what I saw on the stage was a man desperately trying to communicate something to the audience about consciousness, and what I saw in the audience were a bunch of disbelieving onlookers trying not to laugh. You see, Melamed uses a system he calls "Pau-de-Arara" to directly interface with the audience; electric clamps are attached to his body so that when we make noise of any kind, he gets shocked. Some of Melamed's jokes simply aren't funny, or they haven't translated properly from Brazil to America, but for the great majority of the time, puzzled people were trying to figure out whether or not respond to his questions, whether or not they should laugh, and best of all, whether or not it would be alright to applaud the man.

Honestly, I wanted to clap just to hurt him; after all, it's not my fault he hooked himself up to a machine like that, nor is it my fault that his text hasn't yet translated well into English. But I have another policy, too, and that's not to do anything to an artist that I wouldn't have done to me, and when he offered to show the audience that the shocks were not fake, I didn't exactly leap at the opportunity. (For what it's worth, there was plenty of noise the machine did not pick up on, and plenty of times that the machine was turned off, so the show is still more about the gimmick than his actual point.)

In any case, when Melamed read in his own language toward the end of the show, he sounded clear, strong, and confident. And when he recited off strings of three letter words toward the beginning, I started to understand the way in which nonsense could be turned into sense. But until he resolves the language barrier, American audiences are just paying to watch a man electrically flagellate himself, and that's not my idea of theater.

Under the Radar (Day 2): This Place is a Desert, In Spite of Everything

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

- This Place is a Desert

Photo/Hayden Taylor

"We can talk about love and all the ways it wraps itself around us until it's just another form of suffocation," cries one of the many characters caught up in the pains and pangs of Jay Scheib's This Place is a Desert. And that's exactly what happens: a series of tight and interconnected rooms give way to a tangled snarl of relationships that overlap and clash like human hurricanes. Furthermore, a series of cameras and a passive observer (Kenneth Roraback) air the real time scenes from multiple angles, catching each character's reactions like windows to the soul, a creative use of multimedia that allows for poetic, image-heavy transitions.

As the men and women fling wildly from partner to partner, the locations become just as interchangeable, with borders as porous as the chambers of the heart. A large tan bedroom, with an illusory mirror wall, serves as the home for the couples: Jeanette and Marcello, Mr. and Mrs. Rowe, and Jim and Monica. A pale blue hallway provides the path for all the additional romances -- between Marcello and Victorovna, Monica and Richard Harris -- as does a dark red room that serves both as a place for Jeanette and Mr. Rowe, and as an orgiastic guest room.

The play does a fairly good job of depicting what happens to relationships that outlast the love, and the lingering gaze of the camera, always watching for just a little too long, helps to cement that effect. Unfortunately, the cinematic elements hollow out the stage action (which could be called a metaphor for love, but a dissatisfying excuse, if that), and after mechanical blocking, melodramatic lines delivered to the camera, and a body poetics that is anything but natural, it becomes hard to take some of the actors seriously. Caleb Hammond, for instance, would make a fantastic, egocentric drunk as Mr. Rowe, if he hadn't already played the deathbed flirtations of Bill Faulkner the same way.

Luckily, the play ends on exactly the right note, the pinnacle of anti-romance and modern love: Victornovna (the fantastic Aimee Phelan-Deconinck) pleads with Marcello (Jorge Albert Rubio, who grows more and more into the role as the show continues): "Please. Please, say you don't love me." "No," he replies, digging into her, the two burying, suffocating their heads within each other's bodies. "No. I won't say it."

- In Spite of Everything

Photo/Caroline Harvey

In Spite of Everything
is the best use of spoken word that I've seen in a play yet; an urban yet arty mix of Laramie-like exploration and poetic imagination that divorces itself from reality even as it plunges itself back in, deeper, through brilliant metaphor. Only The Suicide Kings (Rupert Estanislao, Jaime DeWolf, and Geoff Trenchard) know how much of their story is true, but it hardly matters: whether it's a poem about getting fed up in the service industry, dealing with acne, or watching Columbine in reverse, there isn't a verse that isn't relevant, not a thought that someone in the audience won't agree with.

The play opens with The Suicide Kings introducing themselves to an ordinary class in an ordinary American town and then launching into a writer's workshop called "I feel a scream coming in." Unfortunately for them, the next day, 27 kids are dead, and detectives, having found a journal at the scene of the crime, are breathing down Rupert, Jamie, and Geoff's necks, demanding to know what they said to the kid that might have finally made him snap. As they alternate roles between their own self-effacing, honest poetry for the "classroom," as detectives grilling members of the group, or simply giving testimony from the killer's friend, father, and classmates, they are pursued by Sam Bass's slashes of the cello, a musical drive that demands that the void to be filled with words.

And fill it, they do. Segments from their past (fact or fiction?) show us Rupert's initiation into an Asian sect of the Crypts, Jaime as a bullied and Goth-like teenager, and Geoff as a once-violent child, and for all of them, their escape is through the language that gave them a second chance. The show vibrates with these lively verses, poetry that ignores barriers of form or canonized style to take back a disenfranchised street grammar, and the play hums with such powerful lines that I'd have to quote the whole script to do it justice. Grab your pen and paper, or razor and wrist, whatever your medium (their line, not mine), and see In Spite of Everything, for it wasn't talking that made this fictional kid snap; it was his silence.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Sherlock Solo

Notorious master detective Sherlock Holmes comes out of retirement to solve a case involving a desirable, self-contained young woman and one of her former suitors. Although the premise is introduced 40 minutes into this 90 minute piece, this one-man show is brilliantly acted, exceptionally written, and engages the intellect from start to finish. ................................................................................
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Dr. John H. Watson, trusted friend and biographer to Sherlock Holmes, was an almost constant presence in the 19th-century fictional detective's life. In Victor L. Cahn's Sherlock Solo, Cahn loses the sidekick and stretches his legs in a role that he seems to have been born to play. Crafted in the manner of a fascinating lecture, Cahn regales us with a case that was intriguing enough to pull him out of retirement, and beguiling enough to almost go unsolved.

Cahn
first captures our attention by playing a beautiful Bach piece on violin, introducing one of his many talents as well as a prop that later becomes an integral part of the plot. From there, he takes us on a tour of Sherlock's many professional endeavors, from failed virtuoso to theatrical actor (a segue into a Richard III impersonation is of note) until he arrives at the sciences, the foundation for his work in crime. Having finally found his niche, he attacks it voraciously as he did with his other pursuits, but this time, his efforts flourish into a full-fledged career. His facility for crime work becomes so notorious that he amasses many cases and clients and almost renders the police department null. After an admirable and lengthy career, he retires with the knowledge that no other detective has rivaled his successes. And for Sherlock, being the best is the only state of being there is.

While basking in his achievements, Sherlock tells the story about a previously undisclosed case that pulls him out of retirement. In the absence of Dr. Watson, a striking American young woman with poise and self-assurance named Madeline Lortimer pays him a visit with a proposition. She asks him to determine the authenticity of a violin owned by a former romantic interest who is intervening in her current engagement to another man. The violin, if proven a fake, will be key in discrediting him and reinstating her peace. Immediately taken by this "supreme Machiavelli", Sherlock takes the case, never imagining that the road to what should be an open and shut case would be filled with so many surprises.

Director Eric Parness guides Cahn through a delightful performance that is also challenging and rich with entertainment. Cahn, a charming performer with exceptional diction, commands the stage with confidence and a hint of snark. The writing by Cahn is a scholastic achievement in itself that may be too lofty for some audience members, but those who are learned will be arrested by the wit. Cahn's Sherlock is pompous but not offputting, and controlled, but not dry. Cahn's impressions are inspired as he zips from male to female characters and seedy to upstanding ones. All of the production elements are strong and work for the better good of the show.

With a discernment sharper than forensic science, Sherlock Holmes is legendary for solving the toughest cases. But with the boom of crime TV shows such as CSI and Law & Order, it's easy to perceive Sherlock Holmes as antiquated. Cahn brings him to the stage, fresher, livelier and more formidable than ever.

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Through February 2nd.
Tickets: $20. (212) 279-4200
The Kirk @ Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street (between 9th & 10th Avenues)

Under the Radar Festival: Church

Photo: Ryan Jensen

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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Young Jean Lee's Church is not for those strong in theological spirit. Theater and art should be considered with an objective eye, but those who favor a Christian spirituality will find it difficult to divorce themselves from their sensitivities. With a format lifted straight from a typical Sunday Christian church service without any glaring nods to a specific denomination, Church peels through stereotypes and likenesses with what appears to be a desire to debunk and derisively analyze the rituals. The mockery is preempted by a rant in the darkness that lambastes audience members about their empty, worldly pursuits. It is as if a massaging of the brain is required without any visual stimulus in order to be fully receptive to the shenanigans that proceed.

Conducted in an interactive format with greeters and a call for prayer requests, there were mixed reactions at the performance I attended, ranging from guffaws to astonishment to outright offense. I fall in the latter category. The distorted testimonies (stories in which a Christian will account for how they came to Christ or why they need Christ in the first place) are spiritually disheartening, unimaginative and, I imagine, only appealing to those that are light on intellect. The vivid descriptions of drug cocktails and anonymous sex would make even Hunter S. Thompson blush. Ghastly songs are hidden under good vocals by Reverend Weena (Weena Pauly), Reverend Katy (Katy Pyle), and Reverend Katie (Katie Workum), but not even good tone and voice control can compensate for the lyrics. Reverend Jose (Brian Bickerstaff) delivers a nonsensical sermon that entices you with a hint of sincerity at first, but then spirals down into Donnie Darko, giant-rabbit type madness. Their version of ministering to the soul ensues with choreography by Faye Driscoll that seems poorly executed by Reverends Weena, Katy and Katie on purpose, and finally, the piece de resistance with a full, well-organized choir led by an embarrassingly provocative Choir Director Stephanie Pistello and competent Soloist Megan Stern.

The message here is freedom of individuality at the expense of organized religion. If Lee's goal is to question Christianity, she instead pillages it. If you're a Christian who attends services out of devotion rather than obligation, this show is not for you. It will grieve you. Apart from that, it is a silly spectacle 0f religious angst that's not worth the idiocies you need to wade through in order to hear the good harmonies, the only pearl of the production. If it's a good choir performance that you're seeking, however, that can be found in a multitude of places, including church, without the senseless sacrilege.
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Through January 19th. THE PUBLIC THEATER -
425 Lafayette StreetTickets: $15 Click here to order tickets online Or call 212-967-7555 (Mon-Sun, 10AM-9PM)