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.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Yellow Moon

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

For something so simple -- four chairs, four actors, no lighting cues -- Yellow Moon is pretty complex. Subtitled "The Ballad of Leila and Lee" (though only one of the twenty short scenes is technically a ballad), the play follows the tragic romance formed between delinquent Lee and "Silent" Leila after an act of self-defense goes horribly wrong. It's a familiar story, so David Greig presents it in a mix of narrative voices, the result of which is an often muddled adventure that is defined more by language than acting -- a work of forced poetic perspective. Yellow Moon is less like a ballad than like an elaborate ballet, in which the dancers narrate every step.

So here's the familiar part: the good girl, Leila Suleiman (Nalini Chetty), is secretly naughty, an alienated Muslim girl who finds her reality between the glossy pages of celebrity magazines, and who only feels alive when cutting herself. As for the bad guy, "Stag" Lee Macalinden (Andrew Scott-Ramsay), he's just an awkward boy trying to drink his reputation to match that of the notorious father who abandoned him. The two fall in love (though it's a static sort of love, not an electric one), and, after an accidental death, find themselves at "8. . . the part of the story where Leila and Lee go on the run to the highlands and nearly die." (It's also the part where Greig strains credibility so as to better spin a tall tale.)

And here's what's new: after establishing these standard tropes -- adoration from afar, tense meetings, brief arguments, youthful conflict, and awkward groping -- Greig turns his attention to the interior, making the cast into a chorus of mental synapses that fire off alternating thoughts in response to the onstage action. Hence the inevitable sex scene comes across half as shy fumbling and half as "He puts his hand onto your hip and under your t-shirt, but he's anxious, he moves too fast. He puts his hand up your top but you move it away because you want him to slow down. He puts his hands between your legs but you move it away because you just want him to breathe, calm and slow and then he says: 'Do you want me to finger you?'"

At these moments, Yellow Moon finds an exciting momentum that is almost spellbinding. However, these scenes are constantly broken by reminders that we're watching a play, or worse, by the secondary characters -- like Holly (Beth Marshall), a B-list celebrity who mirrors Leila's obsession, but fails to flesh it out; and Drunk Frank (Keith MacPherson), the groundskeeper with a secret who forcibly befriends the two escapees, but remains a blank albeit gruff slate. These interruptions prevent the play from spiraling into melodrama, but they also tightly cap the emotions of the show. Guy Hollands uncorks things as best he can: he puts the storytellers in the round, forcing them to play out to the audience, and by restricting props, forces the glorified stage directions (mental directions is a better term) to match the physicality of the action -- hence Beth and Keith, while describing Leila and Lee's near-death experience on a frozen pass, must compete with Andrew and Nalini's physical reactions to that imaginary cold.

What you get out of Yellow Moon is really a matter of what you'll get out of Brits off Broadway: it's a chance to sample a foreign style of writing, performed at a top-notch level. Though that style may not be to your taste, as I found, there's still plenty to admire in the attempt.

Yellow Moon
(75 minutes)
Brits Off Broadway @ 59E59: Theater C (59 East 59th Street)

Tickets (212-279-4200): $27.50

Performances (through 5/18): Tues. - Sat. @ 8:30 | Sat. @ 2:30 | Sun. @ 3:30 & 7:30

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Walworth Farce

UK-based writer Enda Walsh is no theatre-newcomer, but his work has rarely been seen in New York. This is a shame; he is a profound writer whose creativity can be shocking. This is also a nearly flawless creative team; from the unendingly layered acting, to the gorgeously dilapidated set, to the probing, tempoed direction. The largest flaw of this show? This is a very limited run (the production is on its way to London).

Review by Amanda Cooper

Woah. If this were to be a one-word review, it would be “woah.” The Walworth Farce, though just a four-character play, is a behemoth of a show in every way. This is a good thing – a positive thing. But it is also a event one should be prepared for before going – this is not some light and airy Broadway musical. And though you may laugh and cry, this is not a play of hope, but one about sorrow and desperation. So, woah.

A London apartment that seems to be crumbling away houses a father and his two sons, both of whom spend the opening of the play placing things and fixing their wardrobes just so. After a few minutes of doing this in silence, the three position themselves and begin, what becomes eerily clear, is some sort of play they are performing for themselves. As they continue (often taking breaks to make minor adjustments, or argue with each other), we learn this play is a daily ritual, and is in fact an embellished re-enactment of a day in this family’s life many years back in Ireland. The boys, Blake and Sean, play a wide assortment of characters that flap about the central character of Dinny, who is played by their father… Dinny. In fact, Blake and Sean also play the five- and seven-year-old sons of Dinny, Blake and Sean.

It's possible these three never leave the house, save for young Sean’s daily outing to the grocery store (where he picks up the same list of items each morning). Yes, the outward dysfunction of this family is mesmerizing, but it is the inward dysfunction, which trickles out in between scenes and within their body language, that is heartbreaking. And at the second act, when a fourth character appears, the dark undercurrents of their family secrets slowly rise to the surface, threatening to overtake the fragile world within the confines of this apartment.

UK-based writer Enda Walsh is no theatre-newcomer, but his work has rarely been seen in New York. This is a shame; he is a profound writer whose creativity can be shocking. This is also a nearly flawless creative team; from the unendingly layered acting performances, to the gorgeously dilapidated set, to the probing, tempoed direction. The largest flaw of this show? This is a very limited run (the production is on its way to London).

The Walworth Farce through May 4. At St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, 38 Water Street. 718 254 8779.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


Bordertown is not just a physical place, but a philosophical one. On an appropriately dark and stormy night, nine characters held hostage in a diner are stranded on the border between safety and danger, between life and death, fate and chance. Can they get out alive?

Reviewed by Ilana Novick

Nine people are stranded in a diner on tornado-ravaged night, and the diner becomes a safe haven for a motley crew of small-town characters: the cop, the waitress, the escaped convict, etc. The construct is full of possibilities -- a Breakfast Club scenario where social groups long torn apart finally mix, a chance for long time friends to admit their love, or a Lord of the Flies "everybody tries to kill each other" fest? In this case, Bordertown by Steve Ives tries to be both. The endless conflict keeps the play moving briskly, but also makes it hard to focus on any one storyline. Anything can happen, and that’s part of the problem.

The set is a classic diner, with a huge jukebox, bar counter with plastic pie cases, and a neon sign whose letters slowly burn out until the only ones left are D-I-E. Lights rise on Sedona (Casey Williams), the diner’s cute waitress, who wears tight jeans and boots, likes to play with tarot cards, and has a stream of wisecracks as constant as the coffee she pours, and Wyatt (Claro De Los Reyes) the thoughtful busboy with intense, dark brown eyes who believes in ghosts and was abandoned by his mother as a baby. They fight with George (Michael Bertolini), the sort of boss who screams at his employees to get back to work, even when there's only one customer in the diner, a slight, white-haired man named Hank who insists on asking everyone he sees if they are “him.” It’s a sign that something isn’t quite right in this house of pie and coffee, more so when practically half the town comes in to get out of the rain.

One of these strangers is Little Mick (brightly rendered by Michael Kingsbaker), a mobster’s lackey, keeping with the classic theme with his fedora, sharp suit, and Brooklyn accent. Both coffee and plot are boiling as it's revealed that George isn’t the upstanding restaurant owner he claims to be: he owes a gambling debt to the mob boss, and it’s Little Mick’s job to collect. Mick is hilarious in his attempts to be both street and book smart, quoting Dostoyevsky and referencing Greek mythology just as readily as he threatens to break everyone’s balls.

More danger arrives in the form of Miles (Andrew Schecter) and Otto (Cary Hite), two escaped convicts who hold the diner hostage (as if the tornado weren't enough). Schecter tires to hold all of his nervous energy in check, but his jerky movements, nervous fidgeting with the gun, suggest a criminal on training wheels, interrupting his own threats, swinging the gun aimlessly, always on the verge of tears. In stark contrast, Otto does not speak, but the movements of his eyes, and tightening of his mouth in anger as he wields his gun suggest a reservoir of hidden emotion. There’s also a funny, if tasteless physical sight gag, involving the man who comes to check the meter, and a strange physical condition that results in spontaneous orgasms every time he hears the name Hilary Clinton. Did I mention he’s somehow involved with planting a bomb? Apparently it’s not enough that there’s a tornado, mobster, a hostage taker, and a strange older man.

As in many movies and plays involving near-death experiences in cramped quarters, the fear of death is incentive for people to relieve themselves of their secrets, to answer as quickly as possible all of the questions about whether it was fate that brought them together or just a coincidence, or whether their life was worth anything, whether they will go to heaven or hell. The life stories are told in expository monologues rather than through dialogue, which gives the actors some room to shine individually, a challenge in such a busy plot. The physical staging is another bright spot, and complements the feeling of being trapped, as the cast members elbow each other, while trying to shift their chairs, straining for physical independence, even as their emotions are being held hostage by Miles and his gun.

Soon enough, both the storm outside and the man-made one inside blow over, and the inhabitants are free. Will they still be friends after the chaos of the night? Will Sedona go to Mexico with Otto and Miles? Will one of the town’s cops, who was among the stranded, arrest Little Mick or Otto and Miles? Everyone is intact physically, but the play could have dug deeper to show, or at least raise the question of whether the experience changed them in any way, whether they really did have any revelations, or whether they can just go about their business as usual, invulnerable and jaded, relieved to be alive, but unchanged.


Bordertown is playing at the 14th Street Theater: 344 East 14th Street, 2nd Floor. Performances are Tuesday-Saturday at 8pm. Tickets are available at or through the 14st Theater Box Office.


Catherine Trieschmann's wonderful new play, crooked, doesn't settle for putting the "OK" in "crooked." It aims for and succeeds at greatness, justifying a twisted plot with acting that goes straight for the heart.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

As Laney reads her short story aloud, towering and hunching over her mother, she takes particular relish in her final line: "Instead of serving up lemonade, he served up bullets, straight between the eyes." What teenage daughter wouldn't want to shock their parent, especially one who blames her mother for leaving her father and moving her from comfortable Wisconsin to cruel Mississippi. (Never mind that her dad came into her room with a knife, thinking he was Abraham and she Isaac.) "Did you feel your arm hairs rise like you'd just been electrocuted?" she asks, halfway between a squeal and a gasp. "Well," her mother responds, ever the list-making pragmatist, "the ending comes out of nowhere . . . . maybe you should make it a little more realistic?" Ugh, mo-om!

The stories may be darkly fantastical (like short snippets of The Pillowman), and the teen angst may flood the set (much like From Up Here), but Catherine Treischmann never lets the clash between imagination and realism get the best of her. As a result, crooked's plot bends and twists just enough to let the characters go straight for the heart. It's this honesty that allows Laney to not only befriend Maribel -- a fellow outcast, shunned for her remedial status, obesity, and evangelicalism -- but to possibly love her. It's that naked need for acceptance that lets crooked make hell a necessity: "There has to be a punishment for people who sin and sin and keep sinning. If there isn't everlasting hell, then Hitler and Stalin and Deedee Cummings will never get punished for what they did."

It's that thought, taken one step further, that obliges us to take this blind faith seriously. In the best scene of the play, Laney genuinely opens herself up to god, aching to believe in someone who can heal her heart, or at least her hunched back. Nothing happens, but while Laney retreats into bitterness, Maribel gives Treischmann an entry point to follow real faith: "I ask that you forgive me," she says, tearfully praying for her friend, "for not being a better witness to Laney, because if I had been a better witness, I know that she would have felt you, because I know you know never say no to anybody, and if Laney thought you said no, it must be because I did something wrong." And just like that, in the sublime calm that characterizes many of the modern plays tackling religion (think 100 Saints You Should Know), the two girls share a moment of rare beauty. The playwright describes it as electric: it is.

Although crooked is billed as a comedy, Liz Diamond does the play a real service by holding the play up to this level of performance, refusing to let this important clash of world views descend into cheap comedy. Carmen M. Herlihy's Maribel is absolutely heartbreaking, a fragile, isolated girl whose belief in invisible stigmata is just a step away from self-cutting. Herlihy fills the role out, refusing to be "stupid," "religious," or any other dismissively one-dimensional adjective. Instead, she's the most sympathetic of the characters (though no-one in the play is cruel: another reason why crooked is so tearfully powerful).

The play ends in the middle of the climax, with Elise (Betsy Aidem) expressing her love for Laney (Cristin Milioti) in religious terms ("I have a love for you that surpasses all understanding"), and Maribel confronting her religion with physical action. It's a broad moment, yet sharply specific too, though it's no surprise that a play with a name like crooked refuses to be bound to the straight and narrow.

(90 minutes)
Women's Project Theater (424 West 55th)

Tickets (212-239-6200): $42.00

Performances (through 5/11): Tues. @ 7 | Wed. - Sat. @ 8 | Sat. & Sun. @ 3

The Triumph of Love

A talented cast lifts this less-than-engrossing musical adaptation of Marivaux's classic to surprisingly satisfying heights.

Reviewed by Cameron Kelsall

Manhattan musical theatre fans, take note: for the first time since -- well, in my case, ever -- there's a good reason to go to Queens. The Astoria Performing Arts Center's new production of The Triumph of Love, a tuneful if less-than-engrossing adaptation of Marivaux's Restoration comedy (it first bowed in New York a decade ago), expertly blends freewheeling farce (in the commedia style) with classic Broadway songbook elements. Performed by an embarrassingly talented cast, Brian Swasey's simple yet winsome staging almost surmounts the show's shortcomings.

The action is engaging enough: Agis (Tripp Pettigrew, satisfying enough) the rightful Prince of Sparta, nears the day he will reclaim his throne from the usurping Princess Leonide (Abby Baum, terrific). Under the tutelage of Hesione and Hermocrates, his philosophy-spouting aunt and uncle (Erika Amato and Richard Rice Alan), he has been taught to hate the woman whose family murdered his parents and forced his surviving family into exile. Unbeknownst to him, however, he has already made Leonide's acquaintance, and she, not knowing his fugitive status, has fallen in love with him. (This is a comedy, after all) In the hopes of winning his affections, she dons breeches and passes herself off as a student, hoping to be taken under Hermocrates' wing. It should go without saying that shenanigans ensue.

If one aspect of this production truly thrives, it is the musical performance. The songs are very standard, sometimes bordering on pedestrian, but they tend to soar in the hands (and voices) of this cast. Most impressive is Ms. Amato, who brings an amalgamation of seemingly limitless chest voice and an agile lyric mezzo to Hesione's numbers. Her reading of "Serenity," Hesione's Act One showpiece, is among the best renditions I've ever heard. She's also the most comfortable actor of the bunch, soaring through a scene in which Leonide, disguised as Phocion the student, attempts to seduce her. Her voice beautifully blends with Ms. Baum's raw but appealing belt.

The show's flaws are evident: at nearly ninety minutes, the first act is overlong, and too much of the action rests on incidental numbers performed by a trio of commedia dell'arte stereotypes--a Harlequin (Philip Deyesso), saucy maid (Ashley Spiegel) and miserly handiman (Justin Birdsong). As hard as these three try, they simply cannot make these unnecessary bits work. The book (by James Magruder, a noted Marivaux translator) is overrun with puns, the lowest form of literary wordplay, and much of the events leading up to the denouement seem to come out of nowhere. Still, I managed to leave with a smile on my face, something I certainly don't remember happening after seeing the original Broadway incarnation. It proves once again that a solid cast really can achieve anything.

The Triumph of Love
Astoria Performing Arts Center at the Broccoli Theatre (21-12 30th Road, Astoria, Queens)
Tickets (OvationTix): $15; students and seniors, $12; children under 10, $5
Performances (through May 11): Thursday-Saturday at 8PM; Sunday at 6PM
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Babylon, Babylon

For a while, Jeff Lewonczyk's ambitious illusion, the thirty-man Babylon, Babylon, holds up. But the writer/actor/director stacks the deck against himself, putting the audience so close to the action (lined up against opposite walls) that the lack of drama becomes all too apparent. Nothing sustains the momentum of the overall piece; it's just that there's so many characters on stage that it seems like things are developing, when in fact we're just seeing lots of undeveloped pieces. It is any surprise, then, that when they all collide in a forced climax that the whole thing seems more than a little ridiculous?

Photo/Ken Stein

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

A cast of thirty, an epic story right out of 530 B.C., a fantastical emphasis on the sexual rites of Ishtar (sexy costumes included), and compelling and tumultuous choreography. It's a wonderfully daring illusion and incredibly ambitious challenge for the small, off-off-Broadway Brick theater. And for a while, that illusion holds: it's hard not to be stunned as the entire cast enters, pantomiming the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. After that, we're lost a bit in absorbing all the characters as they return, this time as worshipers of Ishtar, paying their fearful respects to the goddess of love and war as the Persian army barks at the gates to Babylon.

But after a while, the audience is close enough to see the illusion for what it is: an assembly of unfinished thoughts. Zakiti has brought her virgin sister, Alittum, to the temple, but Rasha Zamamiri plays the elder sister as little more than a horny Babylonian, and Melina Gag-Artigas just contents herself with sitting around, waiting for the dramatic focus to turn to her, just in time for her to suddenly kick up a fight when Sharrukin turns his eyes to her. At least Kamran Khan, who plays this ruthless role, has a clear goal -- he wants to fuck a virgin, and with the brothels all closed, he'll settle for the decayed and decadent worship of the temple. These aren't bad actors, but they exist simply to make noise and provide for the illusion of substance on stage. There's no narrative force driving them on, so when it's their turn (the other actors sit idly on their cushions), they have little more to do than pseudo-historical exposition.

It's very hard to hold up such a grant act under such close scrutiny, but with the cast sandwiched between two long rows of expectant audience members, it's hard to overlook the lackluster gaps, such as the fact that Labbu (Adrian Jevicki) is just a man in a white bodysuit, a mane lashed to his head and tail tied to his ass. And it doesn't help either that the young lovers, Iltani and Timgiratee (Gyda Arber and Fred Backus) and their friends, Amata and Demeetresu (Toya Lillard and Eric Bland) sound as American as apple pie, valley girl slang and all. Looking at The Sparrow (Aaron Barker), I always felt like I was watching an actor; after the show, he stood outside in his animal skins, smoking a cigarette in the afternoon sun. All these things stack the deck against the dazzling effect Jeff Lewoncyzk is going for.

The close proximity plays other problems too: perspective goes all out of focus, as when scenes overlap at opposite ends of the stage. Acolyte Niiqquulamuusu (Robert Pinnock) tells one story of Marduk, while Ku-Baba (Michele Carlo) gives her own take on the old gods, but it's hard to figure out what's going on: it's too much, too close, like getting caught up in the Tigris. The artificial climax just makes things worse, with the violent chaos being hopelessly comedic: fight choreography always seems a little ridiculous when punches are pulled inches from your eyes. And while we're talking of perspective, introducing a modern American soldier (Adam Swiderski), whether it's through the Cassandra-like Gemekaa's (Maggie Cino) vision or not, doesn't exactly ground the show in history, and strains far too much for political relevance (the ruins of Babylon are in Iraq) that should be beside the point of a show like Babylon, Babylon.

Of course, in a show this epic, there are also bound to be spots of brilliance: the morality of slavery is exaggerated by Kullaa's (Robin Reed) reign over Yadidatum (Siobhan Doherty) and Ubar (Danny Bowes), but the two secret lovers find some nice quiet moments. The same goes for Belshazzar (Michael Criscuolo), the prince-in-hiding, who speaks politics with his cousin, the High Priestess (Hope Cartelli) just as easily as he falls for the sweet mountain girl, Ettu (Iracel Rivero), a person so non-judgmental and sweet that she might as well be the anti-me. If only there were time to develop the story instead of simply conjuring it up, Babylon, Babylon might find true magic. Instead, I found myself always looking up the sleeve and behind the curtain of every scene, waiting and wanting to be impressed. That would've been a small miracle.

Babylon Babylon (2 hrs)
The Brick (575 Metropolitan Avenue)

Tickets (212-352-3101): $15.00

Performances (through 5/10): Thurs. - Sat. @ 8

Thursday, April 24, 2008

God's Ear

The following review is very long, for I couldn't find a single moment in God's Ear that I could easily omit. That's to be expected from a playwright like Jenny Schwartz, who rewrites each draft from scratch, so that the rhythms not only continue to build, but are perfect in the process. Anne Kauffman, who takes the script seriously -- and literally -- creates a heartbreaking world, and the cast, mostly carried over from last year's production, have made even characters like the Tooth Fairy seem plausible. We imagine things because we are sometimes too full of reality to face it. Face it; God's Ear is unmissable.

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
(Also reviewed by Cindy Pierre: see here)

"I lost my umbrella," says Ted, struggling to find a place within in the stifling normalcy from which he can speak to his wife. "You could have bought a new one," responds Mel (short for Melanoma, but more appropriately, for Melancholy). "I wanted to get home," he punches back. "I'm glad you're home," says Mel, clipping into the rhythm (a sort of verbally repetitious but vocally fresh beat, the sort relentlessly fueled by subtext). "I'm glad I'm home, too," says Ted, pausing only for a moment before adding, "I missed you." "I missed you, too," Mel replies, simply. "No, but I really missed you," says Ted, with the sort of banal logic on which the fate of the world, or at least God's Ear, hangs. "Those are just words to you," he continues, "but I mean it." And that's the miracle of Jenny Schwartz's writing: for all the patters and patterns, underneath the monologues steeped in cliché or those surrounded by trivia, she means it, every last word. (I'd expect no less from a playwright who retypes every word in every draft.)

This literary aestheticism is necessary, too, for God's Ear is about a family trying to cover up their sadness, first by burying it under the surface, then by refusing to talk about it, and finally by shushing it away, either with streams of directed nonsense or with an anesthetic and forced normalcy. The play pits the dark truth against the pretty fiction, at times speaking entirely from subtext (imagine a commercial Chekhov), and then turns to a magical realism in which figments like the Tooth Fairy, GI Joe, and "a transvestite stewardess with a gun to my head," take on flesh. As they burst to the surface, the characters descend into their own personal underworlds, meeting in the midpoint of reality and fantasy, though always grounded by the gentle cadence of the text. At one point, when Ted is asked what he wants by a "transvestite stewardess with a gun to my head" that he has conjured up, he faces his son's tragic death:
I want to watch my son grow up and get married. Or grow up and not get married. I don't care if my son gets married. I just want my son to grow up and be happy. I just want my son to grow old and be safe. I just want my son to outlive me by a million and one years. By a million and two years. I just want my son to outlive me by a million and three years. I just want my tears to roll up my face instead of down my face. I just want my tears to defy the laws of gravity. I just want my son to defy the laws of nature. I just want a drink.
This is the sort of exaggerated truth that leads to deep revelation, a technique on par with the off-kilter plots and characters of, say, Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone. In another scene, Mel -- provoked by the powerful prodding of her daughter's "Why?" -- quickly crescendos through a series of accusations: her husband uses call-girls because he's lonely, bored, weak, and pathetic. That this isn't true is beyond the point (Ted attempts an affair with Lenora, another lonely soul, looking for the right mix of compliments and liquor to drown out their grief); in the wake of their son's death, all that exists for these characters is what is within their own minds.

If the play sounds difficult to digest, worry not: the show is superbly directed by Anne Kauffman, who takes the text -- off-kilter as it is -- literally enough to make it work. Kris Stone's staging is a smooth blue-paneled floor, shiny and unblemished at first, but slowly pockmarked with problems, as characters surface from beneath the panels, metaphors springing to life from the repressed underground. The same goes for Tyler Micoleau's lighting, which one could almost call poetic, in the way it dabs, dashes, and caresses the action -- never brightly illuminating any one thing, but always keeping our attention fixed on the drama. Aesthetically, the design is as pitch perfect as the dialog -- even Olivera Gajic's costuming fits the characters, with loose, baggy clothing (or a disheveled suit) given to the mourners and a tattered wings for the Tooth Fairy.

As for the cast, these lines live within them, and I can't imagine hearing Mel (Christina Kirk) speak without that lisp, or Ted (Gibson Frazier) speak without that stubbly regret. And there's not another actor out there as infectiously giddy as Rebecca Wisocky, no actor who could make the other woman, Lenora, seem so vulnerable and sad. From the menace in Matthew Montelongo's stewardess ("There's no need to panic, but you certainly shouldn't relax") to Judith Greentree's matter-of-fact Tooth Fairy ("Aloe is nature's way of saying sorry"), these actors find otherness, but never abandon the basic humanity that anchors the entire play -- in particular, Monique Vukovic, who, as the daughter, Lanie, delivers a long monologue comprised of trivia ("Did you know that avocados are the good kind of fat?"). As she speaks, she emulates other people, but the effect doesn't make her seem too old -- rather, she seems too young, trying to hide her age with an impersonation of TV wisdom. All the actors -- and let me not leave out Raymond McAnally's rootin'-tootin' "normal" Guy -- have such remarkable ranges that the staggering scale of this script seems to be no trouble at all.

God's Ear is highly recommended, on all levels, as an alternative play that manages to be more than an original voice or a clever device. I'm not repressing anything beyond a wall of grief, so whereas Jenny Schwartz has to take the long road, I'll be direct: you must see this heartbreaking show. It is fresh, funny, poignant, and a phenomenal use of talent.

God's Ear (1 hr 40 min)
Vineyard Theater (108 East 15th Street)
Tickets (212-353-0303): $55
Performances (through 5/18): Tues. @ 7 | Wed. - Sat. @ 8 | Sat. & Sun. @ 3

Monday, April 21, 2008

I Have Before Me A Remarkable Document Given To Me By A Young Lady From Rwanda

I Have Before Me A Remarkable Document . . . shouldn't be a remarkable play, silly as the plot sounds, and yet it is. Playwright Sonja Linden has written out of inspiration, and though she focuses on her frame, Simon, more than necessary, she also uses Rwandan refugee Juliette's knife-sharp details to etch out a deeper image. And, to that end, Susan Heyward is a remarkable actress -- a living, thrilling document.

Photo/Gerry Goodstein

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

For a week, I've been unable to write this review, wanting desperately to do this play justice. I struggled to describe I Have Before Me . . ., for at a surface glance, it is a tacky: Sonja Linden has created a pretentious yet talented poet to stand in for the playwright, and this poet then instructs (and is instructed by) a fiercely intelligent yet emotionally fragile Rwandan refugee. But it's clear from the writing that Mrs. Linden was shaken to the core by her experiences: knife-sharp slivers of detail in this play cut holes in the facile frame, allowing for a fuller picture. More so, despite some missteps by director Elise Stone (none that are serious), Susan Heyward delivers a performance so textured that the show achieves its self-proclaimed goal: "Good writing makes you see what the writer wants you to see--and feel."

At first, it isn't clear that we're meant to feel much more than "scribbles," with Simon (Joseph J. Menino) bumbling his way through his first session with Juliette (Susan Heyward). This opening is played largely for laughs, with the two actors directly describing their expectations to the audience so that we see the huge gulf between the sheltered perspective of an educated Londoner and the forced narrative of a Rwandan refugee. But it quickly gets bigger, as Simon -- himself a well-intentioned stand-in for the majority of audience members -- learns just how little he knows about Rwanda. And as Simon gets Juliette to be descriptive rather than factual, the show goes from being a silly writing exercise to being a heartrending drama. (This is not to say that there aren't overdone moments: Simon's scenes are largely aimless and self-generated, for his character is meant to be stiff and boring.)

This conceit is best illustrated by Juliette's epiphany: she is given an assignment that requires her to simply describe her room. As she begins, Mrs. Heyward is flat and reluctant, ticking off the items in her spartan hostel room. But before long, she begins to talk about the mirror in the room, through which she bitterly sees herself as an object. And soon after, she's peering back into her own painfully detailed memories, nuanced observations such as how they killed all the dogs, because otherwise the dogs would be eating the corpses, or describing how the Hutu would make their victims pay to be killed with a bullet (with the alternative being far, far worse). "Every time I write it," she weeps, "it is like I am there."

For the most part, I Have Before Me A Remarkable Document . . . manages to put us there, too. By keeping the set to a minimum, the play emphasizes the human spirit rather than the material world. This does lead Elise Stone to overdirect (a pantomimed car ride, for example) and it puts too much attention on what is present in Rohit Kapoor's design (a crescent-shaped mirror that looks like nothing so much as a guillotine in reverse), but the play ultimately rests in the quavering voice and teary eyes of Susan Heyward, and she is a remarkable actress.

Theater at St. Peter's (619 Lexington Avenue)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $20.00
Performances (through 5/4): Tues. @ 8 | Sat. @ 8 | Sun. @ 1:30 & 7:30

The Food Monologues

Food. Some people love it. Some hate it. Others hate themselves for loving it too much. So it goes with Kerri Kochanski's The Food Monologues, currently running as part of Emerging Artists Theatre's EAT Fest. A series of short monologues connected by ensemble pieces, The Food Monologues lacks the substance of a full meal.

Reviewed by Amy Freeman

A lot of people, women in particular, struggle with their self-image and weight.
The Food Monologues presents these women, each suffering from a combination of low self-esteem and obsession with food. But while the problem is clear, the reason never is: the monologues lack a source. The unnamed characters are dissatisfied with the food they eat (or the food they wear for their lovers), and what? Granted, each piece is only a few minutes, and there's not enough time to delve deeply into anything more psychological than, say, the name of each monologue, but The Food Monologues would be much fuller if each of the thirteen characters had a chance to explain where their body image and desire to eat came from.

The first monologue ("Mastodon," reads the placard behind her) describes a woman so large that the speaker couldn't walk by her on the street. (A mastodon is a giant extinct animal that resembled the woolly mammoth.) The sight of this large woman causes the monologist to worry that she herself is growing to the size of a mastodon. However, nothing grows or changes on stage: she stands stiffly in place, moves her arms rigidly, and looks beyond the audience, as though she were auditioning for them. The character's concern is evident from her voice, but her fears seem unjustified.

All of The Food Monologues seems like that same character, split into thirteen pieces. Their individual identities don't matter: each merely displays some dimension of the woman who worries about her weight. Some of these are cute, like the overworked mother who just needs Coke (as in the soda); the woman proud of the fact that she eats a lot; and the woman sitting on the ground, shoving cookies in her face. And each scene varies in tone, from the anorexic teenager worrying about food sticking to her ribs, to a woman who'd just like to (as opposed to needing to) lose ten pounds, and the "mastodon" of the first monologue appears onstage to justify her joy in eating chocolate cake. It all comes across as a parade of low self-esteem; it never dives in or explores the society and emotional source of these struggles.

A recurring ensemble piece "I Eat Because" lists reasons why the women indulge—they are sad, happy, are in social situations, don't want to waste food, etc. But, where is their guilt coming from? Why do they have to present a list of reasons why they eat? The lists may be intended to develop a feeling of camaraderie between the characters and the audience. A lot of women struggle with food in real life and are seeking a way to change their relationship with eating. However, the reasons why and how each woman developed her unhealthy relationship with food is never discussed. Furthermore, the ways in which women can change their attitudes towards food are never really discussed, and the characters reject healthy thoughts.

In the end, The Food Monologues is much like the chocolate cake it glorifies. It is initially sweet and easy to swallow, but in the end, one is left craving something with more substance.

The Food Monologues (1 hour)
Emerging Artists Theatre at the Roy Arias Theater Center (300 W 43rd Street, 5th Floor)
Tickets ( $10.00-18.00
Performances (through 5/4): Tues. and Fri at 7PM, Sun. at 5PM

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Fire Island

Fire Island is a place, not an excuse for piecing together rambling, unremarkable characters, and technology is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Nothing compels Fire Island to be a play rather than a novel, and placing the audience in the midst of the action only works when there is action, which Kevin Cunningham frequently keeps just out of reach, projected in three dimensions, but still remarkably flat.

Photo/Diego Bresani
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

"Sometimes it seems to me," says Lydia, "men get all caught up in what they're doing and they forget to take a moment and look around to see what effect they're having on other people." It's an accurate description of Chuck Mee's new self-absorbed meditation on love, Fire Island, a play so consumed by the technology that it distracts rather than absorbs the audience. In Mee's defense, Nikos, who walks beside Lydia both in a shaky digital film and through the audience, explains that he's just trying to work through the logic of it, fearing that if he stops, he'll never be able to finish: "They think I'm so, like determined just barging ahead -- not really a sensitive person, whereas, in truth, I am." That, too, is fair -- Mee's plays are filled with romance and charm. But here, as video assails the audience on all sides and live actors ramble or reenact fragments in the middle of it all, his passion is abstracted and removed: it's too distant to have more than a cerebral impact, assuming one can stop ogling the set long enough to listen.

As the play continues, it widens its focus toward other lovers: a Beyond Sunset-like Henry and Yvette, a David Lynchian Phil and His Girl, and a veritable Shortbus-sized cast that includes Catherine and Hiroko, and Edmund and Herbert. As in other multimedia experiments (like the far more successful Bullet Hole Road), these characters all converse on-screen and off, slipping through time so as to overlap or run out of sync with the footage, or to juxtapose and at times contradict it. But with so many characters and so much happening at once -- not just on different screens, but from different angles that blur together at the seams -- it's hard to tell how an individual scene pieces itself together. More confusing is that Mee's script has a single voice, so that even though the actors are all different people, they all sound very similar. Additionally, that voice is a strained and affected simple one that doesn't at all mesh with the surreal physical actions being three-dimensionally projected (with Eyeliner technology), nor with the deep-throated singer Albert Kuvezin, or the skeletally disfigured "clown" (Gautham Prasad).

At heart, Fire Island is a love story, but the scenes keep branching into what Mee labels "riffs" (which is at least an honest assessment of his collaging). Bob -- a punk-clad critic -- justifies this by saying that all Greek plays are love stories: despite the tragedy, everything always happens for love. Again, while the text may support these wild claims, the rhythm of the piece doesn't: the clown's molestations are tame, Susan has a knife that she never uses, and Catherine wins Hiroko back with nothing more than pity. What's missing is anything more than the love story -- that is, the impetus for us to continue watching. Fire Island is a place, not an excuse to piece together these rambling, unremarkable characters, and technology is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Nothing compels Fire Island to be a play rather than a novel (or a series of YouTube vignettes); placing the audience in the midst of the action only works if there is action, and Kevin Cunningham's direction -- heavily reliant on film -- keeps the actors perpetually out of reach.

From the collaborative effort that seems to have gone into Fire Island, it seems safe to say that Mee and Cunningham have fallen head over heels for one another -- and this is a problem. As Lydia warns, it's awful to fall in love, because at that point, "It's too late to set conditions. You can't say I'll love you if you do this or I'll love you if you change that because you can't help yourself and then you have to live with whoever it is you fall in love with, however they are." And Fire Island desperately needs some conditions, some boundaries, some form, for Chuck Mee is more an anthologist than a playwright, and he is reluctant to edit or shy away from anything he stumbles across.

That speaks toward his Theater of Life -- happening all around you, all the time, catch what you can -- but why go to a show for that? As Charles Isherwood joked some months ago, Trader Joe's works just as well for spontaneous and random drama. "[Cicadas] need no nourishment," Edmund says, describing his confusing love for Herbert, "they just sing continuously caught forever in the pleasure of the moment without eating or drinking until they die. This is the story of love. If you stay there forever in that place you die of it." Fire Island is a cicada, caught forever in a malnourished moment that, however vibrant at first, eventually dies.

Fire Island (90 min.)
3LD Art and Technology Center (80 Greenwich Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $30.00

Performances (through 5/3): Thurs. - Sat. @ 8 (BBQ at 7)

Friday, April 18, 2008

God's Ear

A couple struggles to keep themselves and their relationship together after their son drowns in a lake. Back from a critically-acclaimed New Georges production last year, this run uses the same strong cast, a multi-purpose stage and set, and tight direction. Although the script relies heavily on repetition and Biblical and cultural proverbs, the performance is tight from beginning to end. God's Ear is an inventive and compelling look at grief, and a must-see from the Vineyard Theatre's 25th anniversary season.

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

What happens to a family after the loss of a child? Does it buckle under the weight of the grief or do what it can to fill the void? According to Jenny Schwartz' God's Ear, a family experiences a little bit of both and something indeterminate in between to live through the pain. Everything and anything can be used as a raft during this ordeal, from infidelities to the Bible, but Schwartz suggests that perhaps they're not rafts at all. Perhaps there are no rafts to get us through tragedy. Only the willingness to fight, and time.

Passing the time means different things for Mel (Christina Kirk), Ted (Gibson Frazier), and their six-year old daughter Lanie (Monique Vukovic) after their beloved Sam drowns in a lake. For Ted, passing the time means forsaking his responsibilities as a husband and father by cheating with Lenora (Rebecca Wisocky), the woman that represents all of his affairs, trying to exhume the single life by hanging out at sports bars, and not coming home. Mel tries to keep her head above water by battling fatigue, guilt over her culpability in her son's death, and doubt about her parenting skills and her ability to be a wife. Lanie's stuck in the middle, too young to fully understand death and its aftermath, but provides solace for her hurting parents in the midst of her dreams to become Helen Keller. After witnessing the dysfunction in her parents' interactions, she without a doubt learns a new way of communication, but remains unmarred by their lessons.

Luckily, the family's dysfunction does not extend into the production. The lighting design by Tyler Micoleau works hand-in-hand with Kris Stone's set design to create the blue lake and the theoretical drowning that each character undergoes. The compartmentalized set is multi-functional and almost fluid, with new characters appearing to float in from below, and props disappearing when they're not in use. Anne Kauffman turns the delivery of Schwartz' stream of consciousness, cyclical dialogue into a highly stylized, breathless sport, rendering the characters every bit as soulless as their grief makes them become. Biblical scriptures and cultural sayings become interchangeable, meaningful and meaningless at the same instant, neither informing nor harming the path to healing.

The road to this family's redemption may not be smooth, but it has its funny moments. Before you can ponder the action figures strewn on the floor, a touching reminder of what once was, GI Joe (Matthew Montelongo), representing a life-size action figure, bursts onto the scene. As GI Joe, Montelongo haunts Mel's home life while his transvestite flight attendant character haunts Ted's business life. The slow-trotting Tooth Fairy (Judith Greentree), coming in with malaise and a charming song, is amusing in the beginning, but is a sitting duck onstage with sparse dialogue and very little bearing on the plot. Although the plot details are well-orchestrated and inventive in general, some of them are extraneous. There are instances where the characters go on tangents that don't always work, exemplifying Schwartz' facility for wordplay and imagination more than story advancement.

Still, the abundance of creativity makes for excellent entertainment. The cast, all reprising their roles from last year except for Rebecca Wisocky, fall back into their characters with vigor and aplomb. Wisocky is fiery and a nice addition to the show. With reality linking arms with the fantastic and songs intertwining with sobs, it's hard to feel sorry for Mel, Ted, and Lanie; the production isn't geared towards sympathy. Yet, while the characters seek God and rage against him at the same time, empathy for their ordeal may not be a stretch. God's Ear's is a potent drama about picking up things that aren't always magnified, and learning how to listen when all you want to do is scream. Don't miss this artful, well-conceived and well-executed production.
Through May 18th. Tickets: $55.
Vineyard Theatre: 108 East 15th Street,New York City, NY 10003 (between 4th Ave & Irving Place)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Untitled Mars (This Title May Change)

It's hard to be taken seriously in anti-gravity: Jay Scheib's Untitled Mars (This Title May Change) pays for its visual coolness with a nonsense plot. However, somewhere in the hyperphysical compensation, Scheib hits upon a surprisingly styled parable for humanity: we won't just terraform Mars, we'll psychoform it too, bringing Earth to Mars in every way, shape, and form.

Photo/Justin Bernhaut

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

If Miranda July made plays instead of movies, they'd look and sound like Jay Scheib's frenzied yet passionless, meticulous yet sloppy, artificial yet somehow realistic new play Untitled Mars (This Title May Change). As with his last work, This Place is a Desert, Jay relies on hyperphysical action to compensate for dry yet hammy dialogue (spam?), and uses multiple camera feeds and projections to create a visual mash-up of landscapes and emotions that's cool. But this coolness comes at a price, an arctic absolute zero that freezes out plot.

To his credit, Jay's direction grows ever more precise: the strong ensemble cast don't just talk uncomfortably to the camera, they speak through it. The show still looks very staged, but the artificiality of the project is balanced by the play's conceit: this action is a simulation of an actual Life-on-Mars simulation. (He actually interviews some of the "crew" of the Mars Desert Research Station [MDRS] during the show, a bit of metadrama that works because of how unscripted it is [or at least seems].) Also, by making a schizophrenic a central character (she is out of sync with time), the jumbling together of actions, the repetitious physical movements, and the theatrical equivalents of jump cuts seem more focused and relevant to the action.

But there's a reason I haven't written about the story yet: Untitled Mars gets lost, as Jay says, in the fiction. Arnie (Caleb Hammond), some sort of bigwig on Mars, tries to butt in on a real-estate deal being made by a new visitor (Waris Ahluwalia), which requires him to negotiate with his lover, Jackie (Tanya Selvaratnam) and his ex-wife, Anne (April Sweeny). Meanwhile, isolated crew members snap from the pressure: Norbert (Balazs Vajna) rips a hole in his suit and literally dies of depressurization, and his best friend, Sylvere (Laszlo Keszeg) cheats on his wife, Doreen (Dorka Gryllus), as a means of breaking the tedium in his life. In many ways, this play could simply be called This Place is a (Martian) Desert: for all the science, it's a parable for human behavior: we won't just terraform Mars, we'll psychoform it too, bringing Earth to Mars in every way, shape, and form.

Despite this redundancy of theme, Jay Scheib's direction is fresh and startling, and buoyant enough to carry on through things that don't make sense -- "theater of the psychotic," as I've heard others describe it. His design team (especially Peter Ksander's retro science-fiction set, constructed entirely of slick white papers and plastics) gives him ample room for surprises, and there are enough gun shots, static crackles, video interludes, vacuum explosions, and blaring sirens to keep us interested. But these blatant shocks (or, say, Oana Botez-Ban's colorful costuming, from the Seascape-like Martian to the red-dressed passions of Mannie) are never really transportive either: it's hard to be taken seriously in anti-gravity.

Untitled Mars (This Title May Change)

Performance Space 122 (150 First Avenue)

Tickets (212-352-3101): $20.00

Performances (through 4/27): Tues. - Sat. @ 8 | Sat. @ 4 | Sun. @ 6

Mark Twain's Blues

An aging Mark Twain is interrupted during a lecture by Huck Finn and Jim, now older, who set the record straight on The Great American Novel by reenacting scenes from the book the way they should have happened. This Cinna Production may remind some of the recent production of Mark Twain’s own Is He Dead?, but lower in quality.

Photo / Peter Sylvester

Reviewed by John Rice

Walt Stepp’s new play with songs, Mark Twain’s Blues, is not as much fun as it sets out to be. Jen Varbalow’s proscenium arch and bright red curtains are straight off a turn-of-the-century medicine show, but only present the idea of good hokey theatre fun. Stepp, like Twain, is attempting to pinpoint a serious issue using humor, but fails at both, and the play is incredibly flat.

Rather than introduce the real-life problems of Samuel Clemens, Stepp chooses to focus on the one overwrought literary failing of Mark Twain—the unsatisfying ending to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The play begins with the immediate coup of Huckleberry Finn and Jim, now twenty years older, who seek to rewrite their book by acting it out they way it should have been. They take over the stage in the beginning of the play, while Twain is giving a lecture, and never give it back again. Instead of examining the psyche of a famous writer, the play rolls over on its belly and becomes The Huck And Jim Show.

This is the pinnacle of no-conflict action. Huck and Jim accuse Twain of selling them out. Twain agrees. Jim argues that Twain has poor communication with his estranged daughter. Twain concurs. Huck proposes a new ending to the book where he and Jim have to kill a man to escape. Twain begrudgingly accepts the revision. Everything is an agreement, which leaves the audience without a single obstacle to latch onto.

Then there are the songs, which are campy. But with nineteen songs in the two-hour show (that’s a song every seven minutes) the musical numbers frustratingly distract from the task at hand. The play is a barrage of musical numbers parading through scenes of uninteresting interactions between the characters.

The show drags in spite of an accomplished cast doing the best it can with the material. Nobody exemplifies this better than Bonnie Kramer, who plays five roles in the show. Her purposely-cutesy acting is quite enjoyable. Bill Tatum’s Mark Twain is lovable and warm. He has a lot of fun during the dance numbers. Barry Phillips brings a lot of charisma to the now older and enlightened Jim, although his diction becomes a little too articulate at times. The sore thumb of the cast is Lance Olds (Huck Finn) whose rough facial features and out-of-place pop music singing make it difficult to connect him with the character we all loved from the book. Still, replacing him wouldn’t make a difference: acting can’t save a performance if the text just isn’t there.

In 1992, Walt Stepp wrote his first Mark Twain musical, Lightin' Out. According to him, he has revisited the subject matter so as to "tighten the book to focus on Twain's development." But Twain, unfortunately, remains secondary to the show, which is little more than another revision of Huckleberry Finn (and not a very interesting one at that). Don't board this raft.

Mark Twain’s Blues (2 hours)
Cinna Productions @ DR2 Theatre (103 East 15th Street)
Tickets (Telecharge 212-239-6200): $40
Performances (through 5/10) Wed. - Sat. @ 8pm, Wed. @ 2pm, Sat. & Sun. @ 4pm

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Conversation

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. 29th Street Rep’s masterful production of a new stage adaptation of Coppola’s paranoid thriller is just one reminder.


It’s categorically easier to redeem a bad movie in adaptation (are you listening, Xanadu?) than isolate and preserve the workings of a great one. The New York premiere of The Conversation, based on the Francis Ford Coppola movie of the same name, is an eerie and dynamic piece that skillfully retains the paranoia and mystery of the film without the shrinking pains that sometimes accompany these projects.

Harry Caul (David Mogentale), the “best bugger on the West Coast,” is working a job involving a pair having a chat in a noisy park, the kind of challenging assignment he built his reputation on. The couple whose words fade in and out on the tape are not known to Harry or his pals in surveillance, nor are their topics anything out of the ordinary, but Harry becomes captivated, then obsessed with the slice of life he encounters. His suspicion is piqued when he is unable to drop off the tapes to the man who requested them, known only as The Director (James E. Smith). Fixated on the couple, Harry fears he’s just made the same mistake that resulted in the earlier deaths of a client’s family, and vows not to let innocent blood be shed again.

With the exception of a puzzling opener in which Harry addresses a crowd and a few smaller scenes, Kate Harris’s deft adaptation preserves the Coppola plot, and director Leo Farley’s approach shows he understands the power of the movie and the limitations of the stage format. Mogentale’s Harry Caul is a more melancholy, less sure creature than actor Gene Hackman’s character in the movie, but it works for the setting; a brasher, bigger performance might overwhelm the audience and the fascinating supporting roles, from Tim Corcoran’s spy huckster to the haunting-eyed Leigh Feldpausch voicing one half of the tape.

The modular, multifunctional set by Mark Symczak helps all of San Francisco shrink to a manageable size without compromising continuity; in particular, the upstage scrim behind which Harry and his crew spy, later used as a dressing room and bathroom, is an excellent innovation. But as far as stars go, the sound design by Joseph Fosco is every bit as much a character as Mogentale plays and would have been far easier to mess up in translation. The creepy, unavoidable ambient sounds that accompany Harry and his fellow wiretappers; the swirl of outdoor cacophony that accompanies the voices on tape (occasionally overwhelming their own voices); the unfamiliar crackles and flickers of reel-to-reel tape; all of these things Fosco has preserved, and they elevate the play in surprising ways.

Despite its evident modern applications, it’s clear The Conversation is from the era when there was something exciting and dangerous about warrantless surveillance – that is, when the government wasn’t doing it. (According to Wikipedia, admittedly not the most reliable source, Coppola has begun work on a remake of The Conversation which will emphasize post-9/11 paranoia. This is not a terrible idea on paper, but he should wait at least 15 years to do it; those wounds are too fresh right now.) Still, there’s nothing obsolete about fear and unease. See The Conversation right away: just make sure you don't have to leave the theater alone.

Through May 4 at 29th Street Rep
212 W. 29th Street
Tickets, $20,
For more information, visit

Hostage Song

War, Love, and Rock and Roll: Jim and Jennifer, two hostages stripped of their freedom and their dignity, fall in love with music and with each other as they sing through the pain of captivity.

Reviewed by Ilana Novick

“I spy with my little eye, something white.” It sounds like an antsy child itching to move out of the confines of a car, playing a game to cure the boredom of a long drive. However, this innocent game has a darker purpose. In the hands of Hostage Song writers Clay McLeod-Chapman (book) and Kyle Jarrow (lyrics/music), it is alleviating a much graver situation. Jennifer and Jim (Hanna Cheek and Paul Thureen) are blindfolded and handcuffed, a journalist and a defense contractor taken hostage in an unnamed war and country, finding solace if not sanity in song, in games, and in each other. The play is at its best when playing with the audience’s expectations, exploring what happens to two people stripped of both their context and their dignity. But the plot crams a bit too much into a small space: a rock musical, a dark comedy, a love story, and even a timely political situation.

The story and songs unfold against an almost bare, black wall, the only concession to scenery a broken file cabinet that doubles as a bed. Glimpses of Jennifer and Jim’s life before captivity are provided by dream sequences in which Jim talks to his wife and son, and Jennifer to her father and mother. Abe Goldfarb is particularly heart-wrenching as Jim’s teenage son: he alternates the story of his first kiss with the experience of watching his father’s beheading on the Internet. Both father and son seem to defy their age categories: the father regresses to childhood and his son is forced to grow up much faster than necessary. The same goes for Cheek, who literally shrieks and kicks her legs in embarrassment as she hears her father, broadcast on CNN, pleading for her captors to spare her life. Captivity has made a two tough and intelligent professionals into children.

The actors, and the show, are at their best when they use their physical limitations to enhance their regression. Without the use of hands and eyes, Jennifer and Jim rely on their voices (an appealingly scratchy alto and low baritone) and the music for self-expression. The movement compliments their words as Cheek and Thureen deftly move within the limitations of their handcuffs and blindfolds that rob them of both eyes and hands -- two very important pieces of the theatrical arsenal for two people falling in love.

The handling of the love story, however, and the switch from chorus singers to cast members that some of the musicians make, begins to wear thin as the play goes on. In one scene, Jenny and Jim pretend to pick each other up over drinks, their file cabinet doubling as a bar. A few “come here often's” later and they could be on their way to sleeping together. It’s an attempt to add levity to a horrible situation, but it plays like a cheap laugh, almost as if the fact that they are blindfolded and handcuffed is just an attempt to make the clichéd bar seem fresh. The games of I Spy were believable as the act of adults in danger clinging to remaining childhood innocence, the pretend meeting in a bar seems to make light of the situation, an attempt at dark humor that seems more offensive than funny. The continuity of the story is also broken during the transition of chorus members to Hanna and Jim's loved ones, appearing in their dreams. For example, it is hard to take Hanna Bos seriously as both a tambourine-shaking backup singer and as Jim’s estranged wife, when there isn't so much as a change of clothing or voice. Perhaps if the band remained unseen behind the black dividers, it would seem less like a break in continuity. Alternatively, if the musicians and singers had at least changed outfits or voices, it might have been believable.

Hostage Song is at the Kraine Theater, 85 East 4th Street. Performances are April 4-26, Thursday through Saturday at 8pm. Tockets ($18) are available by calling Smarttix at 212-868-4444, or onbline at

Friday, April 11, 2008

Elizabeth Rex

What if Shakespeare introduced Queen Elizabeth (a great woman who ruled like a king) to the actor Ned Lowenscroft (a man who portrayed the great female roles of the day)? Nicu's Spoon's Elizabeth Rex explores the intersection of desire and personal destiny in a raucous production that lacks nuance and consistency, but still manages to tell a pretty good story.

Reviewed by Claire Epstein

Queen Elizabeth's lover, the Earl of Essex, has been sentenced to death for crimes of treason. She has the power to save him, but knows it would be political suicide to do so. On the eve of his execution, the Queen seeks distraction from this burden of power by surrounding herself with the company of Shakespeare's actors. But what begins as an evening of diverting entertainment quickly transforms into a desperate confrontation between the Queen and her subjects. Will she grant a pardon? And how can she live with herself if she chooses not to?

Elizabeth Rex is a work of historical fiction by Canadian playwright Timothy Findley that self-consciously explores themes of power, gender, identity, and the inevitability of loss. At its heart is the struggle of two misunderstood characters who seek to understand one another: Ned Lowenscroft, the flamboyant actor who has based his theatrical career on the portrayal of Shakespeare's great female leads, and the domineering Queen Elizabeth, the monarch who has sacrificed her traditional place in society as a wife and mother in order to retain control of the throne. Having seen Lowenscroft play the part of a woman many times, the Queen is fascinated with the actor, and envies him for the feminine grace he so easily embodies on stage. Meanwhile, Lowenscroft feels helpless in the face of the fatal venereal disease he has contracted, and (secretly) wishes he could master his fear as the Queen has. "If you teach me how to be a woman," the Queen says to Lowenscroft, "I will teach you how to be a man." (Shakespeare, meanwhile, doubles as character and omniscient narrator, stepping aside to allow the story he never had the nerve to write to unfold on stage.)

Findley's investigation of the interplay between gender and power is timely. (Hillary Clinton and her bid for the presidential nomination come to mind.) Do women have to consciously imitate men in order to lead? Will the taboo against men expressing fear and sadness ever be lifted? And what if--despite our best efforts--we can't forgive each other (or ourselves) for deviating from the norm? The Queen refuses to show Lowenscroft any sympathy for his illness. After striking him in the face, she derides him for being submissive. Lowenscroft, in turn, chastises her for being cold and heartless. When her stoic veneer eventually cracks—a slight catch in her voice belies her true emotions—he pounces on this sign of her weakness with a smug, caustic satisfaction.

While the characters in this play are complex and the dialogue is often profound, Findley's script is also littered with traps that the actors have trouble avoiding. Shifts in tone and mood are sudden and extreme, and character motivations are often cryptic. The script teems with over-the-top dramatic devices, and the production milks them for all they’re worth. When two characters lunge at each other to fight, half the cast struggles to hold them back. When newcomers suddenly discover the Queen in their midst, they collapse to the ground with a yelp and have trouble rising. On at least three separate occasions, a mighty slap across the face is delivered for dramatic effect. At the climax of the confrontation between Lowenscroft and the Queen, they take turns threatening one another with a sword while the rest of cast looks on in abject horror.

Exaggerated devices like these require a sensitive director, and while Joanne Zipay uses quiet moments of reverie to create memorable stage pictures (such as the breathtaking moment when the Queen removes her wig to reveal a bald, powdered head, or the delicate tension of the scene in which Lowenscroft washes the stark red and white make-up from the Queen’s face), she fails to rein in her actors during chaotic ensemble scenes when careful timing and a light touch could have made all the difference.

Visually, Stephanie Barton-Farcus triumphs as the Queen, with a regal posture and fine features that are well-enhanced by designer Rien Schlecht and assistant Abeer Al-Azzawi. Here is the image of Queen Elizabeth from our collective unconscious: the high, stiff collar; the bright red wig; the white and gold satin dress, full skirt ballooning at the hips. But save for a few transcendent moments in the role, Barton-Farcus struggles to find balance between three basic modes: playful and witty, shaking with fury, or cold and restrained.

As Ned Lowenscroft, Michael Diogioia shines in moments of poignant soliloquy,
but his campy style contrasts sharply with that of Barton-Farcus. His performance often strains toward emotional extremes and it lacks the kind of moment-to-moment continuity that the part requires. However, this disconnect disappears in a captivating, redemptive scene late in the play when Lowenscroft draws the Queen into a spiritual communion with her departed lover.

The meeting of Ned Lowenscroft and Queen Elizabeth truly is a fascinating 'what if?' Here, it reveals Shakespeare's shortcomings as a product of his own time, and empowers characters who haven't historically been given voice. Nicu's Spoon's raucous production lacks nuance and consistency, but it still manages to tell a pretty good story that grapples with problems of gender identity, desire, and personal destiny.

Elizabeth Rex by Timothy Findley, directed by Joanne Zipay
Presented by Nicu’s Spoon at the Spoon Theater (38 W. 38th Street)
Tickets: $14 - $18 (212) 352-3103,
April 2nd – April 19th , Wednesdays – Sundays at 8pm, & a 3pm matinee on Saturday the 19th

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Sweet Mama Stringbean

African-American blues and jazz vocalist Ethel Waters reminisces about her faded career in Beth Turner's new musical. Although the production is riveting with well-rounded, fantastic performers, sharp direction and great music, it's very lean on Ethel's history. You won't get a comprehensive biography, but you'll still be pleased with this very satisfying display of talent. Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

The nickname Sweet Mama Stringbean, given to legendary entertainer Ethel Waters for her formerly svelte figure, plays a huge role in Beth Turner's new musical of the same name. Now in her early sixties and very overweight, Waters longs for the days of her youth when she was shaking and jiving and enjoying stage and screen stardom. While relaxing in her Harlem apartment in 1957, she transports us to the beginning of her career and subsequently, the beginning of her demons.

The product of the rape of her 13-year old mother, Waters' upbringing was overcast with a lack of love and acceptance from her family. She channels her heartbreak over men and discomfort with Christianity into a series of recordings such as "Am I Blue?", "Stormy Weather," and "Dinah." These, among other songs in her catalog, have survived the decades and remain celebrated even today. She acquired national fame through her singing, and a celebrated acting career followed suit. Cabin in the Sky and Pinky are but two critically-acclaimed films.

Sweet Mama Stringbean is heavy on the jazz and blues standards, steadily incorporating them in both acts. The production effectively uses video and title cards to date the unfolding events and insert the audience into each age. Even though the 20 songs on the list are sung beautifully by the cast, the story penciled in between is sorely lacking in details. And when the show does return to the premise, it often gets preachy instead of showy. For instance, the show touches on her return to the church, but doesn't say much about her alignment with Billy Graham.

Several numbers such as "Heatwave" are sung over the actual record, which takes us out of the recreation of these moments; these singers don't need any assistance to shine. Mother and daughter team Sandra Reaves-Phillips and Marishka Shanice Phillips play an older and younger Waters, respectively. Both women are powerful and enchanting in the roles, their kinship lending credibility to their interpretation of her crusty and simultaneously charming nature. The remainder of the ensemble (Cjay Hardy Philip, Gary E. Vincent and Darryl Jovan Williams) are all gifted and versatile, doing justice to Mickey Davidson's jubilant choreography and thriving under Elizabeth Van Dyke's mostly clean and crisp direction. The only questionable decision is the setting of some of the scenes on the staircases leading to the stage. The performers are frequently scattered behind and on the side of the house seating. Despite the fact that this is a practical way to use the space during harmonies to create a surround sound, the focus of the audience is split on too many levels.

The actors are all stars individually, but the performance of Cjay Hardy Philip, in a variety of supporting roles and solos, stands out. She demonstrates an uncanny vocal range and plays choice supporting roles such as Lena Horne and Josephine Baker that make her infinitely watchable. Gary E.Vincent's dance solo also merits special mention for its ability to delight. Darryl Jovan Williams dazzles on the piano and is hilarious in pseudo-drag.

All in all, Sweet Mama Stringbean is a well-orchestrated show. It may not be very meaty where Ethel Waters' life story is concerned, but you'll still get a great introduction. And while you're getting acquainted, you'll be having a fabulous time.

Through April 27th. Tickets: $20. Purchase by Phone:(212) 279-4200 Open 12-8 Daily. Buy at Box Office:Ticket Central Box Office 416 W 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036 Open Daily 12-8pm. Abrons Arts Center Recital Hall, 466 Grand Street @ Pitt Street, New York, NY 10002

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

We Call Her Benny

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

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 07, 2008

Hostage Song

If the creative dreamteam of director Oliver Butler (The Debate Society), playwright Clay McLeod Chapman (The Pumpkin Pie Show), and songwriter Kyle Jarrow (A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant) isn't enough to convince you to buy a ticket for Hostage Song, then you just don't like downtown theater. This is the rare show that works on all levels, from Chapman's arresting metaphors to Butler's relentless direction, Jarrow's serrated anthems, and the cast's raw honesty.

Photo/Samantha Marble

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Out of context, it's just a precious, awkward moment between new lovers as, over dinner, Jim meets Jennifer's parents for the first time. The banter is genuine, as is the way the two (Paul Thureen and Hanna Cheek) bask in each other's presence, and the way the father (Clay McLeod Chapman) develops a distaste for Jim's work as a private contractor while the mother (Hannah Bos) thinks everything he says is cute. Familiar territory, to be sure, but then again, that's Chapman's style (as in volume of smoke). Horror is expressed in beautiful images of poetry, and violence -- never quite explicit -- turns beauty into a thing of fear. For you see, in context, Jim and Jennifer are actually blindfolded, and the two other actors -- clad entirely in black -- are simply a dream (and at other points, memories, or their captors).

This cruelly imaginative device works a sublimely sorrowful magic -- a magic that's even stronger when side monologues from Jim's wife (Bos) and son (Abe Goldfarb) reveal that Jim has already been killed, and that even the plot's onstage fantasy (magical realism, without the hope of magic) is nothing more than the past. It also fits the style of Hostage Song, an indie-rock musical (with music and lyrics by Kyle Jarrow) that dwells in active contradictions -- where the sensation of being beheaded is likened to that of a balloon floating freely into the sky, or where characters run the risk of being abducted from their songs, mid-note.

These moments are all starkly directed by Oliver Butler, who distills his cleverness (The Eaten Heart) into the sort of minimalism necessary to hold the distinct pieces of the show together. He uses empty space (and a few eerily out-of-place objects, like an upturned file cabinet) to close in on the characters, forcing them, in essence, to displace all that terrifying emptiness with their imaginations. (Mike Riggs's lighting helps, too, to focus our attention on the elegiac monologues.) Furthermore, by acknowledging the artifice of the show -- the band (Drew St. Aubin, Paul Bates, Jonathan Sherrill, and Mr. Jarrow) is just behind the back wall's three revolving panels -- Butler is able to use Jarrow's music to add the emotion that Chapman's exceedingly smart but necessarily restrained text lacks. This is another contradiction that works, as the deliberate script bleeds into the emotionally charged lyrics of the show.

Within those contradictions, Hostage Song also finds a rare sort of honesty that allows it to be affecting despite the marked lack of realism. When Cheek and Thureen sing, Goldfarb often harmonizes with them (in either a solid baritone or ethereal falsetto), but whereas Goldfarb -- as an outsider -- sings with the once-removed perfection of a recording, the hostages burst out with a rawer, coarser sound. Jarrow's music jags them onward with a false hope that turns even upbeat melodies into starkly pessimistic tunes given their unavoidable fate. Even through that, these Everyhostages find glitter even in the dark of death. (The final image of the play, stripped of illusion, is worth the ticket.) Now, if the characters can make the best of a bad situation, just imagine what this creative team -- a veritable "downtown supergroup" -- is able to do given the best of a good situation. Better yet -- don't imagine it. Go downtown and see it for yourself.

Hostage Song (1 hr 40 min.)
Horse Trade Theater Group @ The Kraine Theater (85 East 4th St.)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $18.00
Performances (through 4/26): Thurs. - Sat. @ 8