Thursday, July 31, 2008
UndergroundZero Festival: "The Proposal" and "The Apocalypse of John, the Rabbit Known as Chicken Little"
Reviews by Aaron Riccio
Just before their second annual festival began, Collective:Unconscious had to abandon their former theater due to flooding. In many ways, that's appropriate, because so far as curators go, Paul Bargetto is a man who likes to get his feet wet: how else to explain the most eclectic lineup of shows on any festival stage this year? From a revival of the re-relevant dramatization of black box recordings (Charlie Victor Romeo) to Brechtian lounge acts (The Terrible Temptation To Do Good), burlesques (Pinchbottom Declares War!), and clown poetry (Clown Axioms & The Bitter Poet), the UndergroundZero festival defies easy categorization.
For example, Seth Powers's disturbing The Proposal begins with a simple revival of the short Chekhovian farce of the same name. But the actor/director (Daniel Irizarry) isn't quite sure the message is getting across, and doesn't know how to simultaneously reach the older theatergoers looking to relive the peaceful past of passive theater and the younger iPod generation. The question he poses is a bloody difficult one--"Why can't theater be art?"--and it's made all the bloodier by the violence of good doctor Chekhov (Laura Butler) and the well-intentioned puerility of a thick-bearded, cookie-laden Nietzsche (Vic Peterson). Actor's search for truth twists into a dark farce, from an animalistic portrayal of the creation myth to a Gallagher-like climax, with a few breaks to dance the mazurka. Under normal conditions, such dangerous leaps in illogic would simply be dismissed as pretension, but Irizarry wrestles Powers's script to the floor by grounding everything in the intensely physical, and it's near impossible to look away.
Taking another approach, the modest Freddi Price's The Apocalypse of John, the Rabbit Known As Chicken Little does for shadow puppets what South Park did for cutouts: literally and figuratively crude, his show takes an absurd Terry Gilliam-like glee in blatantly satirizing the book of Revelation. That John has been replaced with a masturbating, alcoholic rabbit who believes the sky is falling is already plenty silly, but he soon encounters "Henny Penny" ("That's the lamb of god, bitch!") and "Goosey Loosey" (the whore of Babylon), and it's only a matter of time before the scrim is overrun with demons, from a dancing, googly-eyed 666 to a snooty Frenchman drunk on absinthe ("Wormwood"). More is more, but the exaggeration of such wild contradictions is hysterical: "How many thirds can you divide the world into?" As a means of moderation, Price also performed his two-person bunraku, Frank, which while just as heavy-handed in the murmuring voiceover, was a valuable reminder of the power of silence, and the transitory power of theater.
Of course, theater doesn't have to be art, it can be recklessly entertaining instead. But to really get shaken up, it's important to venture off that beaten (to death) track, and no better place to jump off the deep end than with UndergroundZero.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Reviewed by Sarah Krasnow
What’s a shortcut-craving wannabe artist to do when he longs to write a show, but lacks the energy (and possibly the talent)? In the case of Mark and Andy, two early twenty-somethings, it’s a matter of staving off sloth as long as possible, enduring a few ego blows and friction between friends, until finally creating, well, something. The Artistical Process of Mark and Andy is a play about writing plays that also contains two plays (actually, one’s a video project that goes kaput). This matryoshka doll effect roots the show in reality: how many Mark and Andy-like experiences has young playwright Jeff Sproul (who also plays Mark) had himself, we wonder. (Of course, he’s far surpassed their capabilities.) The subject preps us for comedy, too; whether it’s writing for off-Broadway or just a high school AV project, most of us can recall the good, the bad, and the ugly that occur during the creative process, and remember it all as the funny.
But combining the funny and the real confuses The Artistical Process of Mark and Andy. At first, we are ready to relate to the humorous and recognizable characters. Andy (played with easy earnestness by Matt Sears) is a true buddy: laid-back, up for anything, and genuinely kind. His girlfriend, Janine, is a reader and writer by hobby whose levelheadedness balances Andy’s tendency to drift. Mark’s a passionate dreamer and entertainment junkie, a guy to whom his favorite movies and TV shows mean so much, he thinks the only way to do something important is to create art himself. But before we know it, Mark inflates to larger-than-life caricature scale, and we find we’re laughing at hyperbole.
When hit with a yearning strong enough to knock him off the couch (the urge to write a cop drama), Mark ends up at Andy’s place, where the two prime the creative pump with an improv game. Though they’re just tossing a ball and making noises, Mark micromanages the game and throws a tantrum, establishing him as a diva-dictator who’ll settle for nothing less than total control and a starring role. True, these types notoriously infest the entertainment world, but Sproul goes overboard condensing the antics into 75 minutes: all in one scene, Mark insults Janine, makes fun of her private journal, tries to get in with Andy’s sister (she thinks he’s a “douche bag”), and freaks when Janine discovers he’s writing a Gossip Girl episode. Later, Sproul punches up the humor with the doomed filming of the inane cop show, full of hackneyed shoot ‘em up sequences and monsters, and during which Mark butts heads with his cast and crew. All the while, Andy and most of the other characters exist in the non-caricature world.
Make no mistake: The Artistical Process of Mark and Andy is an upbeat comedy, and Mark’s exaggerated behavior does not hint at dark humor; rather, it does a lot to make the show funny. However, when some characters fit one style and some fit another, the inconsistency muddles the point of the piece. In a moment of abrupt sincerity, Mark says, “I just want to be creative and good, and I don’t know if I am, and it sucks.” The trouble is, in order to get laughs, the play portrays his stuff as clichéd and bad. So I guess it sucks. But what kind of message is that for a comedy?
In the climactic play within a play, Mark and Andy have “turned inward” (read: written what they know) to produce some performance art about how hard it is to write a play. Here, Sproul is taking an interesting risk: not only has he included multiple plays in one work, but he’s set up Mark and Andy’s play to serve as the culmination of the real play. If their play isn’t funny, Sproul’s play isn’t funny. Luckily, our heroes’ performance piece, complete with interpretive dance, is pretty funny, and it keeps the real play from failing, though not from falling short of what it could have been. A little like its title characters, The Artistical Process of Mark and Andy has created something, though less that what it intended.
The Artistical Process of Mark and Andy (75 min; no intermission)
Horse Trade Theater Group in Association with No Tea Productions
Under St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place)
Tickets: $18; Students/Seniors $15
Smarttix at 212-868-4444 or www.horsetrade.info
Performances (though 8/9): Thursday – Saturday @ 8pm
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Mark Brown's adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days is all about transportation, and not just the physical kind. Exaggerated accents, comic physical action and a briskly narrated pace (with two Foley artists for emphasis) transform Jules Verne's novel into an adventurous bit of theater. In the same vein as The 39 Steps, Brown's script calls for a small ensemble (five actors), with Daniel Stewart as the straight man, Phileas Fogg, and Evan Zes as his indomitable sidekick, the flexibly French Passepartout. They are joined by Lauren Elise McCord as Aouda, who comes across as the loveliest of plot contrivances, while the very talented Jay Russell and John Keating spin around them, filling out the other twenty odd characters.
Verne's novel is practically engineered for such an adaptation: it's an endurance race, as are most farces, and Michael Evan Haney directs it as such. There simply isn't the time for a dull moment: even the exposition is punctuated by pantomime that call to mind the swaying of boats, the juddering of trains, and the galumphing of elephants. If there were even the hint of blandness, Brown has excised it from his script, with the actors either hastily "narrating" into the next bit of fun or introducing a new character just long enough for a laugh. The combustion, the steam-ups, the hot air: all of these things are consistent with the forward motion of the plot, and hence the play, and even the intermission--which hits mid-typhoon--propels the show forward.
Best of all, Around the World in 80 Days is appealing to all ages. Kids will laugh at the bumbling Detective Fix (Keating) and his attempts to hinder Fogg (who he believes is an infamous bank robber), while adults will find his mock-Sherlock affectations most enjoyable. As for poor Passepartout (Zes's portrayal is anything but poor), he resembles Clouseau, from his insistence that his watch is a "perfect time piss" to his close encounters with opium. This recognizability is intentional, especially for the rotating caricatures, and David K. Mickelsen's costuming deserves as much credit as Russell's affectations for filling each role out.
If gas prices are keeping you from traveling much this summer, why not take a trip Around the World? This slapstick adventure is far roomier than coach, not bogged down by any weather delays, and, thanks to the expert acting, there's no chance of you missing anything along the way. As Fogg would say, it's all accounted for: entertainment most certainly included.
Around the World in 80 Days (2 hrs; 1 intermission)
Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd Street)
Tickets (212-727-2737): $60.00
Performances (through 9/7): Tues. - Sat. @ 8 | Wed., Sat. & Sun. @ 3
Monday, July 28, 2008
Reviews by Aaron Riccio
In Shaun Gunning's Writer's Block, a playwright trying to meet the expectations (and deadlines) of his latest work struggles to turn his love-hate relationship with his agent into a means of inspiration. Taking a different approach, Elisa Abatsis's Daguerreotypes stretches a metaphor about the halation of this ancient photographic technique into a play about transitory relationships and the need to let go of the past. Most daringly, Mary Stewart-David and Clive Chang attempt to revive Phileas Fogg's journey as a musical comedy set in 2011 (Eighty-1). These shows may seem to have nothing in common, but they're all selections of this year's Midtown International Theatre Festival (MITF). It's a random sampling, and an uneven bunch at that, but to quote one of Ms. Abatsis's characters, "DILLIGAFF" (Do I Look Like I Give A Flying Fuck)? And, by means of an answer, here's the rundown on some highs and lows, and the reason why it hardly matters.
In the best of the three plays, Mr. Gunning plays what very well may be himself--Daniel--a playwright tragically blocked by his ex-fiancee's sudden abandonment of him . . . for his brother. It's enough to drive anyone to drink one's deadlines away, even as the repo men take everything but an empty bookcase, and as the bathrobe starts to musk up around you. As he's egged on by his agent, Paula (Kate Dulcich), he stumbles his way through a series of comic failures, from a Shepard-like adaptation of his own life--in which Jack (Jack Marshall) loses his fiancee to his meth-addict brother, Gary (Steve Orlikowski)--to a sequel to a sophomoric gangster comedy, "Chicago, 1923," which playfully packs more fish-related puns into a ten-minute gag than a whole can of sardines (sans the stink). The play also spoofs the "murder mystery" play, but thankfully, the jokes aren't at anyone's expense, for they tie together into a classic showdown between a writer and his own creations, with a little romance thrown in for resolution.
Next up, Eighty-1, or "Around Around the World in 80 Days in 80 Minutes." Phileas Fogg IV (Daniel Lincoln) is forced to validate his great-grandfather's record by recreating the journey (that's by rail and by boat, for you Verne purists). He's joined, of course, by the descendants of that trip, JP Passepartout (Brayden Hade) and journalist "Fixey" Fix (Nicole Weiss), and yes, an Indian princess (Jen Anaya) appears. The show is in extremely good fun, but it speeds through so much that it fails to develop much character, and the songs--all piano-based--suffer from not having the strength of personality behind the words. The haste also sacrifices adventure for a shallow love story: not always a bad thing, but without the exotic danger there's a lack of obstacles and an excess of exposition. Developmentally, though, Eighty-1 is in great shape: when's the last time you saw a show whose only problem was learning how to slow down?
Unfortunately, Daguerreotypes seems as if it's frozen in time: the bookending scenes between Gemma (Storm Garner) and her beloved art teacher, Norman (Doug Rossi), were taken without the flash on, and the lack of chemistry (or even reason for those scenes) muddies the rest of the picture. There just aren't any circumstances: Cece (Jessica Morris), who is pregnant with a brain-dead baby, is unable to explain why she's come to a studio that specializes in peaceful photographs of dead babies and Henry (Alfred Gingold), who runs the studio, isn't able to express his passion for this sort of photography or for the love of his life, the country gal Darcy (Lynn Spencer). Consequently, the drama often seems slower than the lengthy (but musical) scene changes. Chase (Jared Morgenstern) is the one character she nails, an angsty employee of Henry's: of all the characters, he speaks without thinking--and that leaves him free to simply be.
And yet, I'm always drawn to these festivals. Regardless of flaws, there's an earnestness in the work, some sense of purity that just needs to be worked out in front of a live, receptive, audience. Chances are, most of these shows won't move on (at least, not without heavy revisions). But at the same time, you haven't heard the last of these crews.
For a list of the 60 shows, the venues, and the performance dates, go to the MITF website, here.
Friday, July 25, 2008
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Taylor Mac comes to us in drag, green-faced and glittery, with a thickly clumped wig, but despite his eccentric act (high energy rants modulated by ukulele), don't mistake him for an alien. He's a wildman, a performance artist born in the crucible of gay nightclub basements. The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac is a messy sampler of his previous solo shows: by the end of the night (after opening "Pandora's suitcase"), he's standing in a sea of old costumes. The overall topic of this self-proclaimed "subversive jukebox musical" is to pierce what "the bubble of preparation," in which America (and, by inclusion, audiences) attempt to shelter themselves from harm by "preparing for the surprise." Two things are made clear by the bubble of light that surrounds him: first, that Taylor Mac cannot be contained by David Drake's direction, and second, that for all his mania--singing breasts and all--there's nothing particularly shocking about Taylor Mac.
Whether this proves Taylor's point or hinders his performance is beside the point, for the show goes on, whether you "get" it or not. For me, the show was only periodically entertaining, with Taylor's between-song explications far more interesting than the vignettes themselves. Both are performed at the same energy (dial that intensity up to eleven, but soften that bass with charm), but his stream-of-consciousness monologues seem more genuine than the rehearsed songs. This is due to his eagerness to reveal himself (though drag is an element of the show, I don't mean it like that): he jumps on and through his own lines, uncontrollable, as he tries to get it all out.
The danger is that due to the nature of the performance, some of the riskiest truth may come across as shtick. The costumes change, but they're largely superfluous, and what remains underneath never really changes: speech, song, speech, song, but nothing that would truly pierce that bubble. His mirth and amiable nature tames the "be(a)st," and though Taylor mentioned that he hates comparisons, his reliance on Mylar props and his needy direct address bring to mind a certain overly muscular redhead's stand-up routine. ("Bobby wanted to have unprotected sex, and when I wouldn't, he said 'Are you afrAIDS?'")
For all the shrill speeches about this culture of fear we live in, Taylor refuses to exploit the grotesque to make his points. Instead, he revels in it, softening the edges, and by allowing us to remain safe in our seats (save for one "lucky" participant), he allows us to easily dismiss his act as pure entertainment.
The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac (90 min; no intermission)
HERE Arts Center (145 Avenue of the Americas)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $20.00-35.00
Performances (through 8/2): Tues. & Thurs. @ 7:30 | Sat. @ 10:30
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Reviewed by Ilana Novick
Like a Breakfast Club version of the walking dead, Cyrus (the lovable prankster, played with an effectively sly grin by Anthony Martinez), Grace (the prim ex-prom queen played by Jillian Coneys), and Levi (their leader, Lincoln L. Hayes) are angels who descend on New York City to protect Adam (Jimmy Joe McGurl) a young man struggling with both his homosexuality and his increasing doubts about God. They defend Adam from being the victim of a gay bashing. Cyrus makes an angry speech decrying the misinterpretation of Jesus’s teaching that have led to too much discrimination. The other angels concur that Adam has nothing to feel ashamed of, that Jesus loves him too.
While it’s nice to see that even religious figures think discrimination is a problem, I wonder if the good will expressed by these angels, as well as their pop-culture references and arguments, are merely an ironic coating designed to make organized religion, and Christianity in particular more palatable. Also, while the angels make their points perfectly clear, they get more stage time than the person they are supposed to be saving. We know that Adam is trouble because he goes to a psychic at the beginning of the play, and because he’s in a car accident, but more time is given over to watching the angels save him than to any scenes of his everyday life.
The staging doesn't give any insight; it's more appropriate for a dress rehearsal. Folding chairs and black crates are overtaxed in their use as chairs, cars, flying devices, tables, and beds. The lights were barely dimmed at all during scene changes. Despite its enthusiastic angels and positive view of religion, They Walk Among Us isn't likely to convert the audience into liking the show.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
BY ELLEN WERNECKE
The ghost of Dorothy Parker, the lady wit of the Algonquin Round Table, still stalks the streets of New York, preying on the melodramatic young who drink too much and want to make something of themselves. Those Whistling Lads may come ultimately to praise and showcase Parker, not to bury her, but it can keep that heroine worship somewhat in check, and that's a good thing. (Not every drinker turns out a Dorothy.)
Maureen Van Trease as Parker walks the audience through a short course on the sharp-tongued flapper, narrating her life with assistance from a selection of her poems and short stories. Van Trease hovers in the background as the ensemble plays her friends and lovers, reciting poetry and acting out her less well-known short stories, not just her famous quips. A description by Van Trease of Dorothy's unhappy marriage is paired with "Here We Are," a scene of two giddy newlyweds (played by Ethan Angelica and Hannah Wolfe) whose honeymoon is undone in two hours by sex and bitterness. As Mrs. Parker slides into alcoholism and love affairs, on stage it's played out as "You Were Perfectly Fine," in which a drunk (Justin Herfel) is retold--painfully--the events of the night before, or else the inventions of his female companion (Annalyse McCoy). In this convention Those Whistling Lads, also adapted by Van Trease, puts the work on display as biographical evidence, instead of dwelling on life and leaving out art.
Parker's heroines are tortured, but their situations are common enough to outlast the era in which they were born. (In"A Telephone Call," a chorus of women from 1928, 1945 and 1964--played by Wolfe, McCoy, and Natalie Wilder--all wait for the phone to ring in a symphony of emotional cruelty.) There are no happy endings for these dames (nor was there for Parker), but director Bricken Sparacino keeps the tone relatively light and lets hero worship play through. The tragedy of Parker's life is that her aim was so true, but as she reminds us in Those Whistling Lads, "I never did take my own advice." "Dottie" will continue to inspire, despite everything.
Those Whistling Lads
Part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival
Through August 1 at the Workshop Theatre, 312 W. 36th St., 4th floor
Tickets, $18, ticketcentral.com
For more information about MITF, visit Midtownfestival.org
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
BY ELLEN WERNECKE
There’s no question that reality TV has perverted the traditional sense of what it means to be an intern. It may surprise regular viewers that interns don’t typically get sent to Paris, and they usually aren’t forced to play camp games with their fellow free laborers to test their teamwork skills. So the scenario envisioned by the new play “Interning” is hardly outlandish: Why wouldn’t a 21st-century intern suspect that an indentured summer assembling gift bags and brainstorming for a PR giant is secretly being filmed and thus her entrée to stardom in our time?
That’s Alisha (Jenna Pace), a former Miss New Jersey and one of four summer interns working for the slimy Ron Olden (Ryan Andes). Joining her is a wannabe actress (Kristen Howard), the gayest straight man around (Anderson Lim) and London everygirl Marta (Nadia Owusu, who also wrote the play), who lounge around in their holding room waiting for their boss to page them a la “Charlie’s Angels.” But Alisha’s conviction that there’s a hidden camera causes her to act in ways that would be perfectly acceptable on reality TV and absurdly improper in life. Even the calming influence of Carl Bella Carmichael (Michael Galyon), Ron’s assistant and an acting legacy in his own right who claims not to use his family connections at all, can’t constrain her desperation to win.
Owusu’s script takes too long to unwind, but once it gets going the comedic performances prove capable of holding it aloft. The blocking helps: Director Rye Mullis uses a pen of chairs to strand the interns on center stage for most of the show, making their own tension contagious. Lim’s play on stereotype as a man who's gay and doesn't know it is pretty tired, but Andes’ take on the creepy boss is surprisingly original in the sneering way he presides over his clueless underlings. And Galyon’s monologues paired with a thousand-yard stare steal the show.
“Interning,” part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival, runs through August 3 at Where Eagles Dare (347 W.36th St.). For more information, visit Midtownfestival.org
Monday, July 21, 2008
Reviewed by Sarah Krasnow
Prince Trevor Amongst the Elephants builds off a fairy tale foundation: an evil king, a banished hero, love that transcends social barriers, and so on. Here, Prince Trevor represents our banished hero, the ribald twist being that he was kicked out of his kingdom for being gay and is now questing to reunite with his true love, Toby, the stable boy. Along the way, he and his nymphomaniacal servant pick up some new friends: Dymphna the Slut, Daniel the Rustic Feralist, Lynetta the (ahem) accommodating lady-in-waiting, and the Elephants of Style, played by actors with little besides their faces covered.
Replacing a G-rated tale with adults-only material isn’t new, but playwright Duncan Pflaster’s zany versions of the usual bedtime story suspects and skillful combinations of the flowery with the vulgar make for fresh, original gags. (Wait ‘til you see what’s hidden in the forbidden ballroom.) And amidst all the debauchery, the loveable cast of Prince Trevor delivers every joke, whether an intricate play on words or an exploding expletive, with such sweet-faced sincerity, they often catch us by surprise. Rather than nodding and winking, they wholly inhabit this fantasy world, and each utterance of the word “queer” by a stern medieval king gets that many more startled giggles.
Of course, sweet-faced sincerity doesn’t guarantee precision. Prince Trevor gets funnier and funnier as it goes, but it takes a moment to get rolling, and it has its up and downs. The first scene is by far the weakest: it deals with two minor characters and sets up none of the wicked silliness to come. And throughout the production, the actors feed off the audience’s laughter and the energy of the more frenzied scenes, which results in some unevenness. However, amateurishness adds a certain charm to this most-fractured fairy tale, where stuffy rules don’t apply.
Theatergoers who attend Prince Trevor Amongst the Elephants should expect extremes. If they can take what this play dishes out, they’ll be treated to the belly laughs the right rhymed couplet/castration joke can produce.
Prince Trevor Amongst the Elephants (90 mins, no intermission)
Presented by Midtown International Theatre Festival
June Havoc Theater @ Abington Performing Arts Complex (312 West 36th Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $18.00
Performances: Tuesday, July 22nd, 6:30pm; Friday, July 25th, 9:30pm; Monday, July 28th, 8:30pm; Saturday, August 2nd, 9:30pm
Friday, July 18, 2008
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
It wasn't until [title of show] opened on Broadway that it was ready for Broadway. What started out as a campy homage to musicals and the writing process at the New York Musical Festival in 2004 aspired for bigger things when it was updated to include its experiences post-NYMF as it played at the Vineyard Theater in 2006. But it's the new material developed for Broadway, 2008, that has given this musical a real arc. It's still light, comic, and filled with unabashed insidery glee, but it doesn't just say that it's building to fortissimo, it really does. Before, it would've been like the first act of The Fantasticks; now, while still running at a brisk hundred minutes, it's got elements of the second act of Into the Woods--not just more serious, but more musically complex.
Things start simply enough with "Untitled Opening Number," a meta-overture that gives a sampling of the self-referential narrative style (future present/present past) that [title of show] uses to sing about its own creation. ("So we'll put in a syncopation/and we'll add a quarter note/and we'll softly start the coda from a very tiny point.") It's a gimmick that repeats, most immediately in the next song, "Two Nobodies in New York" ("What if this dialogue were set to music?/What if what we're saying could be said in a song?"), and if it were only a gimmick, [title of show] would quickly wear out its welcome. Instead, the songs are actually character-building devices, miniature star vehicles that show not just Hunter Bell's book and Jeff Bowen's music and lyrics, but Hunter and Jeff's charisma. They are two nobodies, but they're two nobodies on stage, which means from the get-go, it's a dream come true. That they happen to be funny and share an unrehearsed chemistry only helps the show.
As the show merrily rolls along, two friends are introduced: Heidi Blickenstaff, a Broadway-bound actress stuck on the "replacement understudy/ensemble/off-stage singer/dance captain/assistant stage manager track" and Susan Blackwell, an "unconventional" actress (she uses the term "handsome"). Like Jeff and Hunter, these two play themselves, and this unforced, easygoing camaraderie practically makes [title of show] a Disney musical: "dreams do come true." It's true that the next fifty minutes are best enjoyed by musical theater fans who will catch references both to Chess and Alice Ripley, but the history is played broadly, for audiences of any background. In "An Original Musical," it's funny enough that Jeff is goaded into writing by a jive-talking Blank Paper (Hunter), even if you don't catch the jokes about Broadway's "star-powered" decline. "Monkeys and Playbills" isn't just nostalgic for the golden years (Sail Away, Ride the Winds, Carnival in Flanders), but, thanks to Hunter, it's absurd, too ("See the monkey sail away on his speedboat!").
After an awkward "montage" of compressed jokes that are unfortunately forced, the play jumps to the post-Vineyard material (the new stuff), and it's here that [title of show] starts to build beyond simple good cheer. Now the show becomes about art and compromises: not far off from Sunday in the Park With George. The pressures of success cause splinters in the tight-knit group, and it's here that the metadrama takes on a second level: Heidi stands on stage as Hunter and Jeff discuss replacing her with a name, like Sutton Foster. Likewise, Jeff's music fractures just like his relationship with Hunter as the rhythmic "Change It, Don't Change It/Awkward Photo Shoot" examines the editing process that's necessary to get an OK for Broadway. The script and the actors within it are all organic, and these darker moments give the show dramatic weight while at the same time reassuring us (by their very presence on stage) that everything is going to be alright.
This optimism is [title of show]'s strongest feature, for it uses the form that it's invented (or at least perfected) to address common issues. There's no no giant chorus numbers filled with flappers, no big orchestras--just the very funny Larry Pressgrove on keyboards--which means that even on the Broadway show, there's opportunity for intimacy and honesty. "Die Vampire, Die!" dresses it up in comedy, but those insecurities--they're the same ones we all face. And the final two songs, "A Way Back to Then" and "Nine People's Favorite Things" are both warm, positively glowing songs that take real memories and craft them into real songs. It's a reminder that beneath the bright lights of Broadway, there are real people, too, and it doesn't all have to be loud and glamorous to make us feel something.
[title of show] (100min., no intermission)
Lyceum Theatre (149 West 45th Street)
Tickets (212-239-6200): $36.50-111.50
Open-Ended Run: Mon., Tues., Thurs-Sat. @ 8 | Sat. & Sun. @ 3 | Sun. @ 7:30
Thursday, July 17, 2008
By Amanda Cooper
In 2006, The Stranger ended up on George W. Bush's summer reading list. In 2008, playwright Mickle Maher, inspired by the image of Bush reading about a man's odd ambivalence toward his senseless act of murdering a stranger, responded with a play. The Strangerer is a strange mash-up of the first 2004 Bush/Kerry debate and elements from Camus' novel. The result is creepy and ominous, and funny, too. But it is also overindulgent, and a bit too deliberately paced.
In an effort not to give anything away, suffice it to say Bush adopts and vocalizes many of the intellectual troubles and actions of Camus' main character. Though the debate structure is kept throughout the play, and even in the candidates' manner of speaking, hardly any discussion of moderator Lehrer's questions happen--instead the two respond to each other, and to their passing thoughts. Bush is portrayed here as especially self-indulgent, as he clearly attempts to work out recent personal crises on the stage.
Writer Maher has also designed the set: a straight-ahead, appropriately staid debate stage, with two back-set podiums and a moderator's desk at front. The 95-minute show simply contains these three historically accurate characters: George W. Bush (Guy Massey), moderator Jim Lehrer (Colm O'Reilly) and John Kerry (Maher, the wearer of many hats for this production). The three performers work hard throughout the evening, embracing their characters' known quirks and habits, while still making their interpretations of these three their own. There's Kerry, with his statuesque posturing, directly clashing with Bush's blinking discomfort.
Provocative messages are at work: the "theater" of our political system, the way our news media can be manipulated by politicians, the odd reasoning that may be a part of a criminal's mind… The Strangerer hits all this well. But a debate is inherently anti-climactic and singularly paced. And despite Maher's searing insights as playwright, the format is structurally rigid, holding the play at too consistent a speed, at times taking more time than necessary to make a point.
At The Barrow Street Theater
All tickets $30
www.telecharge.com or 212 239 6200
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Scenes from an Execution opens literally, with its actors frozen in tableau as the narrator, aptly named Sketchbook (Allison Corke), draws us back to Venice, 1571. Galactia methodically pencils in her lover's buttocks, quick in her maddening brilliance to observe that "dead men float with their arses in the air." She is preparing to paint the great naval battle of Lepanto for the Doge, so she drives off her childish lover and focuses on Prodo (Peter Schmitz), "The Man With A Crossbow Bolt in His Head." He is content to be a freak, but neither Galactia nor Barker are willing to paint such a one-dimensional battle: instead, they shatter the audience's "peace with life" by daring to expose Truth.
The play next wrestles with the figurative interpretation, with Galactia's struggle to look, not to simply see. This is theatrical contradiction that drives the political strife, for Galactia has no intention of making Admiral Suffici (Robert Zukerman) "glorious," as his brother, the Doge, demands. Instead, she plans to paint him with a look of indifference in a sea of corpses, daring Cardinal Ostensible (Timothy Deenihan) to punish her and hence martyr the idea she believes in. Suffici warns her that "There is no such thing as what happened. Only viewed of what happened. Just as there is no such thing as a man. Only images of him." Her own daughter, Supporta (Lucy Faust), and Gina Rivera (Patricia Buckley), warn her for other reasons: her actions may damn the cause of women painters throughout Venice. But like Riddler, an equally stony Barker protagonist (A Hard Heart), Galactia believes she knows best, and her pleasure in this allows her to gleefully cast aside as many lives as it takes.
The final section of the play plunges into a symbolic interpretation, with Galactia "blinded" in prison for her treason, and Carpeta transfixed like his own passion paintings. It's a mark of excellent direction that Richard Romagnoli so easily swims between the styles: though Barker lives by the text, his scripts would simply be essays without some sort of visual flair. Galactia shows her single-minded focus by causing a scene in a funeral procession, one body fighting a current of silent and solemn gatherers. Later, the entire width of the stage sets up a panoramic view of the "Battle of Lepanto," entirely through the eyes of its actors.
Jan Maxwell makes a perfect Galactia, playing the painter like a mature Joan of Arc. She fights like a warrior as she defends her work from three drunken soldiers, and then reverts to childish behavior as she giddily unveils her finished work to her lover. As for this lover, David Barlow provides a necessary balance for Maxwell's moodiness, exaggerating just enough to be comic, but no so much that he distorts himself beyond the needy humanity of the later scenes. The play is also aided by Alex Draper, who plays the pompous Doge with a constant menace beneath his affability. Barker's words are layered with double meanings, for his characters, politically motivated, are very clever: Mr. Draper (who starred in last year's No End to Blame) is there, word for word, but with an unctuous charisma all his own.
Howard Barker's plays are not performed often enough in New York, perhaps because the material sometimes seems dated or because the conflicts are so intellectual. Both of these things are misconceptions by those who only glance at the script: that's the mistake of seeing without looking. Potomac's strong production of Scenes from an Execution is one hell of an opportunity to really look at an artist's struggle to say something; it is far more than mere drapery.
Scenes from an Execution (2hr 15min; 1 intermission)
Potomac Theatre Project @ Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16th Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $24.00
Performances (through 7/26): See Web site for details
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Reviewed by Amy Freeman
In life, things rarely go according to plan. This is especially true of weddings, and particularly true in the case of the Sara Desario's wedding. The minister is trapped in a foreign country due to a war, the flowers are mangled, the string quintet is actually a punk band, and a stripper sits atop the wedding cake. Most importantly, the groom has not arrived yet. However, the wedding hijinks take a backseat to the story of Dan and Clara in Brian MacInnis Smallwood's pretty funny but ultimately confused The Wedding Play.
Clara met Dan on “Facespace,” an online dating service, and has been e-mailing him for nearly a year. Unfortunately, Clara’s twin sister, Zoe, hates Dan, so unless Dan’s friend, Nick, can distract her (or hook up with her), he’ll never really get the girl. At first, things seem to go well, but it soon becomes clear that Zoe, who claims the strong bonds of sisterhood, refuses to let Clara live without her.
Between the wedding's disasters and Dan's problems, the play is bursting at the seams with slapstick and farce. The resolution is then postponed, stretching in order to get more cheap laughs. The comedy obscures the pain of the characters to such an extent that it doesn't allow much sympathy for the characters. If the play were all fluff and superficiality, this would be fine. But the occasional digs at illuminating the notion of love suggest that the play wants to go deeper than its shallow roots.
What makes the show worth watching is Lindsay Wolf's portrayal of Clara, Zoe, and a confused delivery girl. Wolf succeeds in creating a different persona for each of her characters—sweet, shy Clara walks with a light step and speaks with a delicate voice while Zoe stomps, swinging her arms and speaking in a low, husky tone. Wolf doesn’t steal the show: she is the show, and she pulls attention away from her sister's mangled wedding to her characters' myriad issues and personalities.
The Wedding Play is enjoyable in its ridiculous frivolity. However, it throws too many things into the mix and ends up with a message similar to that of a drunken best man's speech—what is it trying to say? The confusing resolution just doesn’t fit with the tone of the play as a whole: it tries to teach a serious lesson while making the audience laugh, but it can’t have its cake and eat it too. Even the most disastrous weddings only have one bride, one groom, and one overarching theme. The Wedding Play, with its multiple personalities and ambiguous focus, does too much.
The Wedding Play (2 hours)
The 14th Street Y Theater (344 E 14th Street, 2nd Floor)
Tickets (www.brownpapertickets.com) $10-15
Performances (through 7/27): Wed-Sat at 8PM, Sat and Sun at 3PM (no show 7/16, no 3pm show 7/12)
Monday, July 14, 2008
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
It's the worst kind of joke that only a few of the actors in Perfect Harmony can actually sing with the technical proficiency necessary for a capella. It's a shame, too: like the "dying duck" sound of the bassoon that Lassiter wants to artistically inject into his group, the Acafellas, this lack of musicality "contaminates the sound" of the show. Not that the comedy is pitch-perfect either: it's a little too "loosey" (and I don't mean slutty) and all over the place, which is about what you'd expect from a show that was written by and for the cast of the '06 Fringe production. Director Andrew Grosso, who has been with the show from the beginning, has squeezed square pegs into round holes as best he can (successfully with Clayton Apgar and decently with Sean Dugan).
The production shows signs of stretching in that the funniest moments are the smaller scenes and monologues that don't require such perfect harmony. Nisi Sturgis and Kathy Searle both struggle to blend with the female a capella group, The Ladies in Red, the former as a expletive-spouting klutz (who is vehement about not having Tourette's), and the latter as an ESL-singer who can't distinguish between "I travel the world/and the seven seas" and "It's the end of the world/and we're gonna freeze." But as Tobi McClintoch, an eccentric New Age voice coach ("You should have been told that if you came to me you could help you"), Sturgis is great, and Searle slays the audience as an excitable Kiki Tune, a cash-crazy "talent" scout. Even Vayu O'Donnell, who was in the original production, is at his best when his monologue devolves into a medley of depressed pop songs ("And I'm here to remind you/of the mess you made when you went away/And I'm never gonna dance again/guilty feet have got no rhythm/Just take a look at me now").
Grosso and company tackle a lot of issues, and without a cohesive melody, it's just a bunch of dissonant threads. Valerie (Margie Stokley, who originated the role, too) has confidence issues and can't stand being looked at, which should add to her sweet relationship with the nervous Simon (Mr. Dugan), and clash with the religious beliefs of Meghan (Amy Rutberg), who notes that "Jesus is always watching." It should also help to establish her brother's charisma, but J.B. (Scott Janes), despite being a central character, remains at a tangent. The best comedy requires the actors to feast, piranha-like, upon all the energy in the room. But with such flat notes, they end up savaging one another, quite missing the beat entirely.
Perfect Harmony (2hrs, no intermission)
Theater Row: Clurman Theatre (410 West 42nd Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $18.00
Performances (through 7/24): Mon. & Tues. @ 7 | Wed. - Sat. @ 8