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.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fringe/Anais Nin Goes to Hell

Famous French erotica writer Anais Nin goes to hell to teach classical female characters how to survive without men in this comedy that may rank high on laughs, but also ranks high on formula; it's gimmicky from start to finish. Also, if you don't have a good knowledge of history and mythology, some of the jokes will go right over your head.

Madalyn McKay, Marnie Schulenburg, Aly Wirth and Shelly Feldman photo credit: Erica Parise

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Anais Nin, princess of erotica and famed lover to Henry Miller, left a trail of lovers and husbands behind. How could she not, with lines like “....I want a man lying over me, always over me. His will, his pleasure, his desire, his life, his work, his sexuality the touchstone, the command, my pivot.” In David Stallings' Anais Nin Goes to Hell, when she tells a bunch of strong women waiting for their men and sons that they can and should do without them, she sounds like the biggest hypocrite to them and to audience members familiar with her legacy. This is especially true because Anais, played marvelously by Shelly Feldman, who spent her life refusing to be in charge, is now offering herself up as a leader in this gimmicky, but amusing comedy to characters such as Andromeda (Marnie Schulenburg), Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Jeremy King), Cleopatra (stand-in for Maggie Benedict, Kristina Kohl), Heloise (Aly Wirth), Joan of Arc (Colleen Piquette), and Queen Victoria (Madalyn McKay).

With great, energetic actors who all have a penchant for comedy under Cristina Alicea's clever direction, Anais Nin Goes to Hell is very entertaining and fun. Martha Goode's sound effects, most notably clips of The Carpenters' songs inserted in unpredictable places, and Stephanie Tucci's moving cardboard waves keep the laughs coming, but stunts such as Heloise, Andromeda and Queen Victoria singing and dancing to “Superstar” are silly. Although Stallings' script does demonstrate the playwright's knowledge and admiration for these figures, it alternates between telling too much (well, it is hard to sit through a show filled with classical characters you know nothing about) and not telling enough (leaving out pertinent info like how and why they wound up in hell, or why it’s a fire and brimstone-less place guarded by a Sylvia Plath-eating Hydra ).

Between potshots at Christianity—Joan of Arc waits foolishly for a Jesus that never comes and Heloise, now in love with Andromeda, derides the very habit that she wears and her former faith—and two characters that believe in polytheism, the notion of hell didn't have to exist at all since it is mostly identified with the Christian faith. But Stallings gives each of these characters a very tangible hell-existence on an island without the men that helped define them in history and no one to commiserate with except each other. Despite Anais' quotable sayings about girl power, her reluctant feminist ideals, and her desire to change things and people even after death, the void left by the men doesn't get filled by the end, making Anais a failure at her mission to empower the characters as independent women. And perhaps that was Stallings' intent all along.
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Anais Nin Goes to Hell (2 hrs, 20 min with intermission)
The Connelly Theater (220 east 4th street)
Tickets: $15

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Fringe/Tim Gunn's Podcast

Taking Project Runway’s dapper and avuncular mentor Tim Gunn’s podcast and turning it into a one-man chamber opera is certainly, in the Runway vernacular, "taking a risk," but Make It Work Productions makes it work with a production that captures all the drama of the sewing workroom in a fresh and unexpected way.

Photo/Larry Komarow

Review by Ilena George

For those unfamiliar with the premise of Project Runway, a quick synopsis: one of few reality shows where contestants do more than hook up and argue with each other, Runway pits fashion designers against each other through one-to-two day challenges ranging from “make a dress out of items you can find in a grocery store” to “make a high fashion outfit for an ice skater to compete in” to “make a dress inspired by New York City at night.”

This particular “podcast” focuses on the second episode of the third season, where the designers were challenged to create an evening dress for Miss USA winner Tara Connor to wear during the Miss Universe pageant. Think “red carpet, not pageant,” advises Gunn. In this episode, two of the season’s wackiest designers—Vincent and Angela—butt heads when they are paired together to complete a dress.

Another essential facet of Runway includes its judges’ colorful invectives and jubilant praise; Gunn’s podcast is no exception, with references to Judy Jetson’s birthday party, the Yule log, and a “homely bag of garbage.” While you need some familiarity with the third season’s characters to fully appreciate Podcast’s play-by-play of the contestants’ interactions, John Schenkel’s portrayal of Gunn is enjoyable to both fans and newcomers. Schenkel’s rich baritone and the expressiveness of the music’s phrasing conveys all the drama and horror of ruching-gone-wrong, partnerships made in Hell, and the importance of making your client happy. Steering away from parody, the production refrains from mimicking Gunn’s mannerisms, letting the words do most of the heavy lifting. Clever and engaging, Tim Gunn’s Podcast is far from one-note.

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Tim Gunn’s Podcast: A Reality Chamber Opera
Directed by Linda Lehr
Book and music by Jeffrey Lependorf
The Jazz Gallery (290 Hudson Street)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Fringe/Mare Cognitum

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Theater of the Expendable drew me to this show with its rampant cry for escapism: given the sorry state of affairs in the world today, fuck it, let's go to the moon indeed. But just like their last show, Cherry Docs, the blatant dialogue gives rise to something more tender underneath, and Mare Cognitum manages to blast off above the calamity and commotion. David McGee finds a nice contrast in setting the all-too natural dialogue of excitable Lena (Devon Caraway), shyly intelligent Jeff (Kyle Walters), and contemplatively serious Thomas (Justin Howard), against their hopeful thought experiment, and director Jesse Edward Rosbrow uses long pauses and full lighting shifts to refocus moments, allowing him first to move the action into the past (Walters slyly doubles as a snobby political activist in Lena's world and as an interviewer/confessor in Thomas's self-deceptive routine) and then into a more optimistic apogee. The importance of what these characters are saying (beyond the cheap jokes about Pluto's demotion and Quantum Leap's "god"), help to elevate their conversation beyond sitcom fodder: the thoughts become, in essence, the dramatic hook. It's a clever solution, given that our generation's apathy is defined by the lack of an obstacle, and the show, despite being one ending too long, is a creative change of pace.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Fringe/The Alice Complex

Photo/Nelson Hancock

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Peter Barr Nickowitz's The Alice Complex suffers from only one thing: it's a little too complex for the modest little story he's crammed into an hour. It hardly matters, as Bill Oliver's expert direction and the perfect performances of Lisa Banes and Xanthe Elbrick make this one of the slickest productions of the entire Fringe Festival '08. Here's an example of the abundant cleverness: Elbrick plays Quinn, an actress who is about to star in her theater professor Margo's new play, which is about a young girl named Rebecca (Elbrick) who, in order to work out her love/hate relationship with her idealized feminist teacher, Sally (Banes), takes her hostage. Along the way, Elbrick plays a younger version of Sally, and Banes plays an older versino of Rebecca, touching on a lot of nuances and shades, but forgoing the need to stress anything deeper in these relationships for surfacey lines ("I hate beginnings," says Quinn; "That's because you haven't seen enough endings," replies Margo) and melodramatic mania (as when Rebecca pretends to go off the deep end, hoping to wake up the Sally she is in love with). It's a brilliant showcase, though, and if the overall story winds up a little muddied, the individual choices and chemistry between these two women are terrific.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Fringe/The 70% Club

Black women wait to exhale in this soap-opera/talk show-type drama about the difficulty in finding a mate, but while The 70% Club complains about the problem, it offers little more than “keep on keeping on.”

Photo/Ramona Whitworth

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Mary McCallum's The 70% Club is an ode to the plight of the single black woman. The title stems from the statistic introduced by Annette (uncomfortable as the Jezebel, Alicia Ridley) of the number of black women that live alone versus the 40% of white women and 50% of Hispanic women that endure the same status. To that end, McCallum introduces two couples—soon to be wed Deanna (bright and optimistic Mary McCallum) and Jackson (Darius Willis), and married (with two and a half kids) Cynthia (Tamiko Robinson) and Chris (Shawn Whitsell). She then trots out a two-years-single guy, James (David Chattam), who finds it hard to settle down, some comic relief from Lawrence (Rashad Rayford)’s gay percentage, and Melissa (Molly Hoekstra), the white point-of-view.

The 70% Club is filled with snappy lines of dialogue and solid performances—Whitsell is a natural and as charming as Flex Washington and Jene India owns every scene she's in as Matron of Honor, Louise—but there are no new insights on why so many black women are single. Instead, McCallum falls back on betrayals, abandonment, and Daddy-needing men. The crew deserves a round of applause for helping the cast of nine weave in and out of the cramped set pieces, but given the size of the theater, the playing area might just as easily have been more open. Things like that, plus the histrionics, cram the show into a soap opera/talk show hybrid rather than the compelling drama intended. Until The 70% Club gives us something new to chew on, it will only hold 70% of your interest.
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The 70% Club (2 hours with intermission)
Theatres at 45 Bleecker St-The Lafayette
Tickets: $15 www.fringenyc.org

Fringe/Other Bodies

Photo/Isaiah Tanenbaum

Reviewed by Ilana Novick

In Other Bodies, Terry (Vince Nappo) is an advertising executive who spends his workdays pitching tampon and underwear ads to a female audience, and his nights sleeping with as many women as possible. One morning, after nearly raping one conquest (who just happens to be his boss) he gets a whole new view of his target audience: he wakes up in a woman’s body.

There are about five minutes of sweet revenge (now he’ll see what it’s like) in the look of sheer horror on Terry’s face when he realizes he had breasts. Nappo’s acting is best in these scenes—his eyes widen to anime-character proportions and he writhes and screams, tangling himself in his bed sheets as the alarm clock sounds its punishing wakeup call.

Aside from showing how scared Terry is, playwright August Schulenberg doesn’t delve any deeper into how Terry’s life and personality is changed by his gender. Very quickly, Terry gets a new job, also in advertising and falls in love with yet another boss, this time male. Schipp over-exaggerates this frat-boy slacker, slouching, slurring, and swaggering her way through the role. So how much of one’s personality depends on gender? Schulenberg isn’t interested in debating this juicy question: instead, he changes Terry again, after a sudden car accident renders Terry largely immobile, the direction horribly static, and the gender-switch somewhat moot.

These big changes are a little too much for a two-hander, because it prevents Terry from really learning about himself, let alone women. Plot-wise, the second act seems like a cop-out, and for all the tantalizing promise of the first act, when the gender drops, so does our interest.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Fringe/The Gargoyle Garden

Photo/R. Bratspies

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

It's hard to critique a children's musical--after all, I'm not the target audience--but I will say that Jeff LaGreca's latest work is the opposite of his a capella show, Minimum Wage. That works to his advantage, since kids are more likely to tune in for the killer plot than musicality, so my stovepipe hat comes off to The Gargoyle Garden. Crossing between Mary Poppins and Harry Potter, the show follows the eccentric Edgar Allen Densmore (Patrick Henney) as he tries to evade the evil Brother Keyes (John C. Taylor) long enough to befriend Annabel Lee (Emily Bordonaro); the easily digestible moral is that it's alright to be different. With the help of the chimney-sweeping narrator (talented Allan Gillespie) and a few friendly gargoyles (headlined by Brian DePetris), the show plays like a youthful Edward Scissorhands, and although at one point it practically steals the music to Sondheim's "You Are Not Alone," the show is sincere enough at heart that such similarities comes across more as homage than plagiarism.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Fringe/Cycle

The in-the-flesh thrill of vaudeville is brought to life by Cycle, in which a troupe of players guide the suicidal Charlotte through the make-or-break process of finding success on the stage. It's a string of little adventures, but they pop like firecrackers.


Reviewed by Sarah Krasnow

Oh, what some fedoras can do. Just add a droopy tutu, some character shoes, a trunk bedecked with stickers, and the swellest hoofers in town, and you’ve got the in-the-flesh thrill that is vaudeville. Cycle opens on a troupe of vaudevillians, fated to ricochet through time whenever a member flouts a “showbiz superstition” (uttering the name of the Scottish play is no joke). Unlatching their prop trunk, they find a sleeping young woman named Charlotte inside. Charlotte’s hapless, humdrum life has driven her to contemplate jumping out the window, and today—her birthday—is her last chance to find success. What follows is a string of tiny adventures that go off like firecrackers as the players guide Charlotte though the make-or-break process of seeking success on the stage. The flurrying scenes, steeped in old-timey Americana, remind us of some national traits more classic than apple pie, like our tendency to look for shortcuts (the dream of landing a Hollywood career overnight), all dished out via vaudeville, that great American entertainment.

Backed by piano and accordion, twirling canes and dropping retro slang, the versatile actors dazzle us with jokes, violin, song, and dance, their personalities as complementary as the harmonies in their rendition of “All of Me.” They form a family, but not of the Aristocrats tradition: wholesome and tireless, they just want to do their act and help Charlotte back on the horse (or in this case, red Schwinn bike). In the role of Charlotte, playwright Rose Courtney’s flustered likeability makes us believe she’s not multitalented, though the illusion disappears as soon as she takes her final, well-deserved bow.

Watching Cycle inside the little Deluxe tent at South Street Seaport, a dance party to the right and the bigger-budget stuff to the left, this solid jewel of a play within the frothy nightlife glitter perfectly mirrors the South Street Seaport experience, with its cobblestones smothered by chain stores. The genuine, delightful Cycle transports us through time, allowing us to avoid the commercial and just absorb the joy.

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Cycle (1 hr. 45 mins.; no intermission)
Venue #4 at the Deluxe @ Spiegelworld (Pier 17, South Street Seaport)
Tickets: $15 (866-468-7619)
www.fringenyc.org
Sat., Aug. 23 @ 9:15 pm

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Fringe/Ascension

A slave couple's love and union is tested in this compelling drama. Although the production has problems, the acting and dialogue are both strong.

Photo/Cynthia Robinson

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Cynthia G. Robinson's Ascension is a startling look at the damages that slavery did to the black family structure. The story centers on Ruth (Annie Lee Moffett) and Jacob (producer Cezar Williams), a God-fearing couple in Pike County, Alabama, 1850, who are getting ready to “jump the broom” (an illegal wedding between slaves). Despite harrowing circumstances—Ruth is regularly coerced to have sex with her “owner,” Master Carlisle (Greg Homison), and Jacob serves as a “buck” (a strong slave used as a breeder for more strong slaves)—the couple's deep love for each other is evident in the actors' chemistry. Mathilda (the sensational Richarda Abrams), Ruth's African, black magic-dabbling friend, serves as her vigilant protector and foster-mother. Carlisle has promised Ruth that he'll stop paying her overnight visits once she's married, but his promise proves to be a lot more complicated than he realized. Soon, Ruth is pregnant, and doesn't know who the father is.

From the beginning, Ascension is powerful and encompasses almost all aspects of the emotional and physical trauma inflicted on slaves. However, although Petronia Paley’s seasoned direction elicits some incredible performances and the period costumes by Paley and Robinson are spot on, certain things (like the makeup) are too polished, and others are loose, as when the rapport and glee between an escape-happy Ruth and Jacob fails to suggest misery. In one particular fight scene, Michael Wilson seems to have choreographed the reckless abandon right out of the show.

Robinson does a good job of intertwining heart-wrenching lines with funny circumstances even when the dialogue gets talky; that in itself is a difficult feat given the hardships of the couple. However, Ruth interjects impromptu, somber singing into the dialogue that sounds spurious. The scene divisions, uncomfortable and unclear at times, are distracting to the show, but Gilbert Glenn Brown's nature sound effects reflect the changing time of day and the country setting, and bring the audience right back to the ordeal at hand. Ascension may not be perfect, but it elevates our empathy concerning slavery. Other plays have presented slavery as intellectually jarring, but Ascension makes it emotionally stabbing.
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Ascension (2 hours with intermission)
The Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce St.)
Tickets: $15 http://www.fringenyc.org/

Fringe/Big Beat/Back Flow

Photo/Makoto Takeuchi

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

In the late 1970s, Walter Thompson wanted to find a way to conduct what were essentially jam sessions, and invented a language that would allow him to spontaneously compose a piece, drawing on the energies of any artist around him, be they dancers, musicians, actors, and so on. This technique, known as soundpainting, is the spine of Big Beat/Back Flow, but the visceral effect is like watching Pollock do theater. Evan Mazunik, a James Lipton-like soundpainter, eventually manages to build a lyrical jazz structure out of the chaos (kudos to Eric John Eigner's steady percussion), and that's impressive--to a degree--but the evening is meant for those who get their kicks freebasing to jam bands and Brian Eno. On the whole, the sound of Josh Sinton laughing through his saxophone or Ryan Kotler squeaking two bass bows together is slightly more entertaining and musical than nails on a chalkboard. There's a method to the madness--behold the elegant beauty of chaos--but that doesn't make it any less mad.

Fringe/Usher

Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher is turned into a musical with good songs and imaginative concepts, but it suffers from poor staging.

Photo/Mateusz Zechowski

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

No, it's not a play about the R&B singer. Molly Fox's Usher is a musical re-imagining of Edgar Allen Poe's short story, The Fall of the House of Usher, as performed by Yale University students. In the story, the “narrator” receives a letter from an old childhood friend, Roderick Usher, who complains of an illness and asks for a comforting visit. In Usher, the narrator is an amateur painter named James Cleary (Casey Breves), and he is invited to not only visit Usher (Ben Wexler), but to paint his portrait for the family’s collection.

The show does a great job of bringing Poe's story to life with singing paintings (Usher family members encased in multi-purpose “frames”), and enhances the macabre original with some creative and grisly details of its own. However, the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts is poorly equipped to handle Melissa Mizell’s lighting design (far too dim), and director Becca Wolff doesn't capitalize on the large stage. For instance, placing the opening scene between Roderick and his sister Madeline (Claudia Rosenthal) in a small, upstage area diverts the attention of the audience.

When space was not a factor, Wolff staged some scenes very creatively: a flashback into Cleary and Madeline's almost-romance is appropriately nostalgic and “closing the curtains” when there are no windows onstage is done imaginatively. The competent singers, with Breves as a passionate and earnest standout, lack projection. And even with a live, 8-person orchestra, the music is not loud enough. Despite the silly choreography of “Evil in Our Blood,” it is the best of many good songs in Act One because the lyrics and the arrangement really bring out Poe's darkness. “Water and Gruel,”Act Two's best, brings out the fun and playful side of the actors because of its witty wordplay. On a limited Fringe budget, Timothy R. Mackabee's scene design and Melissa Trn's costumes are right on target. Although Usher's staging needs to be improved, the quality of the adaptation and the heart of the performers compensates for the lack in technicality.
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Usher (2 hours with intermission)
The Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts (13 Spruce Street)
Tickets: $15. www.fringenyc.org

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Fringe/Exodus

The Bible and present day gentrification in New York are linked in this ambitious study of religion's influence on slavery and oppression. Although there are great ideas and good intentions, the production is flawed and the writing lacks maturity.

Photo/Ashleigh Staton

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Daren Taylor's Exodus is a revolutionary mission statement to Black America about gentrification (to Taylor, a form of modern-day slavery), specifically the kind that's going on right now in Manhattan. Rather than a call to arms, Taylor's is a call to votes against the involuntary migration to the outer boroughs (Brooklyn, Queens, etc). In Exodus, Manhattan is represented as a glorious, abundant America, while the outer boroughs are ironically and metaphorically transformed into “Paradise,” a small town in Kansas where “lambs” (child labor) work 19 hours, 6 days a week, and the overseers (religious zealots) are called “Benevolent Shepherds, Protectors of the Path.” There are many parallels drawn to the Exodus in the Bible: characters have abbreviated Biblical names and there’s a call for an Israelite-type deliverance (“let my people go!”with Abel, considered the Bible's first martyr, leading the journey instead of Moses) with Taylor waxing not so poetically on the heavy hand that religion played (and continues to play) in oppression.

Exodus attempts to tackle many dense topics, such as why no one came to the rescue of the hardworking lambs when America kicked them out, but Taylor has bitten off way more than he or his young cast can chew. The staging is poor, limiting the cast to small sections on the spacious Connelly stage. The acting is also inconsistent; while that’s somewhat expected of a 14-member, multicultural cast, some of them are dispensable (Beverly Cabaluna and Lola Ogden are sitting ducks as non-speaking background) and a stretch (as the Old Man, Adam Swiderski can do nothing to hide his youth and as Mag, DeWanda Wise's drag is a joke). There are Shakespearean revivals one minute, and the lack of the spirit moving the audience the next. Worst, the performances doesn't merit the urgent, drumming sound effects that link the scenes. For all of the “hard labor” referenced in the dialogue, visually, there isn't any. It is admirable that Taylor wants to awaken the world to the history and immediacy of injustice, but the maturity in his writing needs to be awakened first. Once that happens, he'll be a formidable presence in the theater.
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Exodus (2 hrs with intermission)
Venue #17, The Connelly Theater (220 East 4th Street)
Tickets: $15 (866-468-7619)http://www.fringenyc.org/
Sun 24@noon

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Fringe/Mourn the Living Hector

Photo/Performance Lab 115

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Paul Cohen's Mourn the Living Hector juxtaposes the Trojan War with the War in Iraq to illustrate the toll of combat on the psyche and the body. Touching base with their families and loved ones in a last attempt at normalcy, Hector and Mike, both played by Jeff Clarke, weave in and out of sticky situations in the 12th century and 21st century, respectively, to return to the battle that they expect will end their lives. With the exception of Woman (Liz Eckert), a character that appears in both time periods, each character from Hector's life has an alternate, updated persona in Mike's life and like Hector/Mike, is played by the same actor. Although Mourn the Living Hector has some emotionally and visually-arresting scenes (woman drags dead father up a hill in a sack, man draws blood from socking woman in the face) and solid acting, some of the staging—such as Polydamus in the 12th century slipping Grace in the 21st century a cell phone—is bland, questionable and the switch between past and present isn't always smooth. Side seats at the Flamboyan Theater may obstruct your view of characters' faces. Furthermore, brush up on your Greek mythology, because the enjoyment of Mourn the Living Hector is directly tied to your knowledge of Troy. However, the acceptance of doom and the precious moments left before it hits translates clearly to the stage, making a strong case for something ageless: society's outrage with war.
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Mourn the Living Hector
CSV Cultural and Educational Center-Flamboyan (107 Suffolk Street)
Tickets: $15 www.fringenyc.org
8/21 at 5pm, 8/23 at 7:30pm

Fringe/The Deciders

Photo/Israel, N.E. Photo & Design

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

With all the backhanded insults directed at the current administration, it's ironic that The Deciders, a satirical rock musical of Bush's plan to reinstate Saddam so as to stabilize Iraq and secure his legacy as a peacemaker, most deserves a backhanded compliment: this is pretty good for the Fringe. However, while Cindy Sheehan (Amber Carson) and Condi (Carla Euphrates Kelly) have terrific voices and Dubya (Erik Hogan) has the self-deprecating swagger down, the plot comes across more as a parody of an already existing parody, and, as if the winks to the audience about the "Fringe benefits" weren't bad enough, bogs down the actual message with a sub-story that features Saddam's desire to mount a musical called "Saddamn." The actual plot is tragic and familiar enough, and if Mitch Kess focuses more on songs like "Safer, Stronger" (in which Cheney feeds lines to a deceived and teary Condi) or the protest anthem "Free" and less on building Saddam up as a misunderstood Elvis ("Blues of Babylon"), this show could have some serious legs. (Getting better, less electronic instruments would help the music from being so lounge-y.) Note to the government, in re: The Deciders: there's your innovation.

Fringe/Kansas City or Along the Way

Photo/Seth Duerr

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Although it's hard to tell that the interlaced monologues in Robert Attenweiler's Kansas City or Along the Way are taking place in the past and future before meeting up in the play's present time of the 1930s, this is an excellent character piece. Louise (Rebecca Benhayon) narrates her half from a sense of panic for her husband left for Kansas, kids in tow, and the jaws of her dreary town snapped down on her. Joseph (Adam Groves) gets the more active storytelling, for he's a traveling guitarist trying to make good, as a line cook, as a father, as whatever it takes to improve the future. Attenweiler's a talented writer, but he deals best with action, so the final scene between the two is filled with beautiful moments (Louise's knowing bribes, Joseph's weary approval, and the metaphorical observation that when you're using newspaper for a pillow, the more bad news there is, the better one sleeps). Joe Stipek evokes a desolate atmosphere with just a few boxes and shifts in lighting, and this two-hander is very well along on its way.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Fringe/Ariel View

Sylvia Plath is dissected and inspected to help her daughter Frieda draw conclusions about her in this well-crafted and riveting show. The real Frieda probably wouldn't appreciate this candid display, but Plath fans and poetry fans in general will for its cheekiness, great performances, and the writers' deep appreciation for the subject.

Photo/Lydia Gamble

Review by Cindy Pierre

Sylvia Plath’s daughter, Frieda, may be regarded like Bob Dylan’s son, Jacob (apple not falling close enough to the tree) but she had something very poignant to say about how the public treated her mother's death and life in her own poem, Readers: “When she came out of the oven / They had gutted, peeled / And garnished her / They called her theirs....” Andrea Graugnard and Daniel J. LeBlanc do some gutting and peeling of their own in Ariel View: an original piece concerning sylvia plath. But instead of the negative slant given to the process in the poem, Ariel View (a play on Ariel, Plath’s second book, as well as Plath's own perception from heaven of what they've done with her story) pays homage to the poet's literary prowess and suffering, with finesse, creativity, and a glimmer of brilliance.

Ariel View opens with Frieda trying to form an opinion of her deceased mother: as she lugs a suitcase filled with biographical material and commentary on stage, the energetic, athletic and talented cast of seven splice Plath's poetry, The Bell Jar characters, and prominent figures from her professional and personal life into a captivating exploration of Plath's life. The imagery, dance, pop culture, and dissenting opinions are relentlessly entertaining, and in its 80 minutes, Ariel View never ceases to captivate as it blurs the lines between Plath's poetry, commentaries and the 10% of original material that Graugnard and Le Blanc contribute. Their tight direction also allows the cast to go seamlessly from playing characters that perform Plath’s work to characters that criticize and idolize it without missing a beat. Segments such as “The Plath Doll” and “The Poet’s Wholesale” are particularly inspired, making fun of the public’s reception of Plath as well as showing disdain for it.

Apart from some musical interludes between scenes by Nathan Toups that drown out the actors, this nearly flawless show provokes thought, understanding, sympathy, reflection and exploration of not only Plath's life but how society treats artists in general. And it's a poetry fan's dream! The staging of “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” are sure to delight even those not familiar with Plath's work because they’re delivered with desperation and fire by the performers. Well-conceived and orchestrated, Ariel View is a must-see at Fringe.
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Theatres at 45 Bleecker Street. Tickets: $15. http://www.fringenyc.org/. Friday 8 at 5pm, Tuesday 12th at 9:30pm, Saturday 16 at 7:15pm, Sunday 17 at noon, Wednesday 20th at 9:45pm

Fringe/There Will Come Soft Rains

Though the three classic science-fiction stories Jon Levin has adapted for There Will Come Soft Rains are warnings of how unfortunately easy it is to destroy what is so hard to create, thanks to some imaginative direction, these shorts thankfully preserve and enhance the material instead.

Photo/Marielle Solan

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Whether you're familiar with the three science-fiction stories that Jon Levin has adapted for There Will Come Soft Rains or not, these creative, image-intensive works successfully make the leap from the page to the stage. In the first, Stanislaw Lem's "How the World Was Saved," Clare McNulty, operating a small bunraku puppet named Trurl, appears in the midst of a field of everyday objects planted like flowers, each glistening (like Trurl) with a single lightbulb on an otherwise unlit stage. The story beings whimsically: as Trurl tests the alliterative limitations of his new invention (a machine which can only create things that begin with the letter "N"), a chorus of robotic actors toss objects from noodles to negligees on stage and inform him that they cannot produce natrium, as that is just the Latin word for sodium. Things take a darker turn (though still couched in comic, Seuss-like language), when Trurl's jealous rival, Klapaucius (Mary Notari) challenges the machine to do Nothing.

Things only get better from there: Jesse Garrison single-handedly brings Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg's "On the Nature of Time" to life, aided by a nifty pseudo-hologram self (that would not be out of place at 3LD) that helps him to portray his paradoxical selves as he shifts between playing the father and son in a suicide/revenge by time travel plot gone horribly wrong. And then there's Ray Bradbury's seminal "There Will Come Soft Rains," in which an automated house, puttering on long past the apocalypse, is portrayed by three actresses (Lisa Maley, Kendall Rileigh, and McNulty) who use simple, symbolic actions that are quite appropriate for a story that is itself symbolic.

The performances are perfunctory, showcasing the stories rather than the actors, but Levin's direction is sublime, really capturing the powerful, lingering images of each tale, from the sight of actors slowly turning out all the lights in the universe to that of photographic flashes revealing the atomized remains of a family, emblazoned in white on an otherwise ash-covered wall. Though the stories warn us of how unfortunately easy it is to destroy what is so hard to create, this adaptation, far from robotic, thankfully preserves and enhances instead.

Fringe/Green Eyes

Photo/Jasmine Wang

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Green Eyes
is a remarkably ambitious piece of theater for such a simple love story, but whether it's Brian Mazzaferri's music, Lizzie Leopold's choreography, or simply the performances from the two singers (Nick Blaemire and Celina Carvajal), two dancers (Ryan Watkinson and Melissa Bloch), and five-piece folk rock band (that's the classic guitar and drum mixed with the classical cello and bass, plus a piano for good measure), I'm sold. Though it's a simple story, Jessica Redish directs the work with, as the song goes, "loving ambiguity," working toward the emotionally rich experience rather than the narratively detailed musical. Given the scope of time that passes--an entire relationship in one hour--we understand that inevitable fighting and the hopeful make-ups, so having a muddled middle isn't actually a problem: the dancing mirrors the music, the music mirrors the singing, the singing mirrors the dancing, and caught somewhere in all those reflections is the teal tint of truth. There are still a few places where it's hard to focus, and, for a show that's essentially about contrasts, a few more duets (like the spectacular "I Only Know I Am"/"Hope in the Questions" finale) are needed to tie things together. But it's marvelous work all around--particularly the lift-heavy dancing--and my eyes were wide open throughout. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Green with nausea" and 5 being "Green with envy," Green Eyes gets a 4.5.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Fringe/Pawnshop Accordions

When the buses depart, Port Authority comes alive with its community of the night.

Photo/Ellis Gaskell

Reviewed by Ilana Novick

In Jonathan Wallace’s Pawnshop Accordions, an unlikely group of friends sit in the folding chairs of a sparse, dark alley outside the Port Authority bus terminal. They’ve formed their own city within a city, a miniature exercise in anarchy, and though its inhabitants talk about one day making it big, getting better jobs, and moving up in society, they never leave the confines of the station, which slows down the pacing and deprives the play of a chance to develop a larger central conflict in its plot.

Named after the food that composes his livelihood, Egg Sandwich (Shpend Xani), an Albanian immigrant who may have been a soldier, fires a makeshift grill and makes a living selling sandwiches to people like Godly Man (Brian D. Coates), the community’s resident schizophrenic, and Roche (Tim Cain), an EMT burned out from years of near-rescues and near-misses who is now concerned that his wife, the bright spot in his life, will be deported.

The set is limited to a circle of folding chairs and Egg Sandwich’s cart. With such a spare set, the characters must animate the space. Zaida (Gina Samradge) in particular, a mute (by choice) accordion player, rises to the challenge. Cradling her accordion as if it’s a beloved but unruly baby, ready to kick and scream at any time, but in need of protection, it’s fascinating to wonder how she ended up there. Xani and Cain never get beyond their easy rapport —Roche getting teased for seemingly never taking the calls from his dispatcher, Egg Sandwich for possibly having been a soldier back in Albania—and their dialogue reveals less than Zaida’s stony silence. The direction, which keeps the characters stuck in their chairs or just outside the perimeter of Egg Sandwich’s cart, only contributes to the static plot.

While the characters have their own personal stakes—maybe something will happen to change the course of their lives, maybe Roche’s wife will get deported, maybe we’ll find out why Zaida doesn’t talk—there is no one question, problem, journey, or larger theme that binds the characters together enough to move the play along, aside from the novelty of a bus station community. The work seems geared more publication in a magazine as a nonfiction slice of life, given how it explores how people form their own communities. It lacks a central conflict however, to make it a compelling play.

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The Theater at 56 Bleecker Street. Performances are August 9-16th. Tickets available at www.fringenyc.org.

Fringe/The Redheaded Man

Photo/Jesse Garrison

Review by Aaron Riccio

Halley Bondy's new play, The Redheaded Man, starts out as a comedy that explores the difference between illness and insight, but by repressing the drama until late in the one-act, Bondy ends up with a lot of unprescribed side-effects: exaggeration, implausibility, and senselessness. Luckily, these unpredictable moments are still largely entertaining, thanks to the relationship between Brian (David Jenkins), the "ill" architect who creates buildings by altering his symbolic memory, and his roommate, Jonathan (James Edward Shippy), whose family adopted him after his mother's death. When these two argue, it's with years of happy memories mixed in with resentment, which makes their conversations far richer than the one-sided and berating "lectures" from The Redheaded Man (Bruce Bluett), a manifestation of Brian's absent father figure, and far better than the manic scenes with Dr. Jones (Michelle Sims), a psychiatrist who is addicted to the drug she's a shill for. The final character, Lydia (Bondy), is another device, but at least she has a dramatic purpose, one that goes beyond manifesting Brian's madness or criticizing an industry that would rather medicate effects than treat the cause. Like the character she plays, Bondy arouses a lot of interest in Brian's unique condition, but despite Jessica Fisch's surefire direction (projections show us what Brian sees), the show is repressing a deeper, richer, meatier second act.

Fringe/America 20XX

Really, these are the guys who are going to save the world? All we can say is, good luck with that!

Photo/Tida Ann Manathat

BY ELLEN WERNECKE

From the very start of America 20XX, in which two muscular gladiators out to save the world accidentally kill each other, this comedic dystopia leaps ahead of most superhero satires of stage and screen. The Rutgers troupe Wacky Hijinks and writer-director Cyriaque Lamar bring a uniquely twisted view of the future to the stage, and while there are missteps, they hit their marks better than most spoofs, starting with their line-up of truly inferior superheroes.

“Live from the death of democracy,” the Power Patriots—pompous Constitution (Jon Bershad), argumentative Red State/ Blue State (Greg Bing) and the inscrutable Super Eagle (Lamar)—have congregated in the Liberty Lean-To, completely aware they are facing their doom. The nasty piece of work iDol has uploaded the souls of every human on the planet, and unless the Power Patriots can protect the last real American baby, they too will be sucked into the gaping, toothy maw where iDol’s click-wheel should be.

With a villain so ludicrous at one point he yells out, “I’m a machine! I count things!” these sad supermen have no hope except to trade American history-influenced barbs, relive their worst flashbacks and face their fears in what can only be described as deus ex anti-machina. Whether they’re singing ‘90s rock ballads or waging war with jazz hands, Bershad and Bing are straight-faced and fantastic—but it’s Lamar’s “gross illiterate clone,” the mostly-naked, squawking man with the bald-eagle mask, that makes the satire sublime. Lamar’s fellow actors may resent these small moments of absurdity, but they pay off for the show: It’s just so incredibly weird that you can’t help but be taken in by the conceit and pushed towards the ridiculous conclusion.

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“America 20XX” returns for one final performance August 18 at 6PM at the Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal Street. For $15 tickets and more information, visit America20XX.com or FringeNYC.org.

Cake And Plays... But Without The Cake

A tasting menu by a promising young playwright.

BY ELLEN WERNECKE

There’s a little too much quirk in the top half of this triple bill of short works by playwright Jono Hustis, but the Daniel Horrigan-directed showcase demonstrates Hustis is starting to look beyond the killer set-up. In “Cow and Shakespeare,” an addled bard (Michael Hartney) meets a writing cow (Michael Micalizzi) as Hustis explores the idea that one man from Stratford-upon-Avon couldn’t possibly have come up with all the works that bear his name. The play doesn’t go much further than this one note, an academic perennial, but Micalizzi’s deadpan, all-suffering bovine is a treat. (At one point, he flatly declares, “Have you ever heard of a COW getting a commission?”)

In “Monsoons,” the weakest of the three plays, a first date between the world’s densest man (Craig Mungavin) and a typical uptight female (Morgan Lindsay Tachco) goes, predictably, horribly wrong on both sides. This is a battle of the sexes that deserves a permanent ceasefire, with Christopher “Women don’t get funny” Hitchens as signatory; the decision here to use that tiresome idea as a final punch line leaves a sour taste.

But this stand-up guy and girl are forgotten with “In The Name of Bob,” a slightly longer work that follows a waitress (Darcy Fowler) who meets a man claiming to be her guardian angel (Andy Gershenzon). With the close of each scene came the apprehension that “Bob” would echo, say, “Heaven Can Wait” or (please, no) “City of Angels,” but Hustis pulls a neat twist at the end that satisfies and delights. It’s elevated by the oddball chemistry between Gershenzon and Fowler and especially by Fowler’s closed-off Alicia, who has to make the audience believe she’s just open enough to take the angel Marvin’s bait. When she can do this, the audience can accept Gershenzon’s flailing and oversize presence onstage. Hustis gives Fowler the space in the writing to make that conversion, a sign that desserts aside, he’s a playwright to watch.

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“Cake and Plays… But Without The Cake” runs through August 24 at the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street. For tickets and more information, visit at hand theatre company’s Website.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Fringe/Walls

Photo/Jordan Matters

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

No matter how complex the characters, coming up with convincing obstacles always seems to be what stands between a playwright and a natural drama. To his credit, Aron Ezra skips straight to the character building, dipping into the fertile territory of magical realism to manifest a literal (and symbolic) obstacle: a warm, wet, pulsing wall that has, one day, split the Pierce's "happy" home in half. As it turns out, the only way to dissolve this supernatural barrier is by tearing down the invisible walls of their hearts: that is, confessing their secrets. And this is where Ezra runs into a wall of his own: the premise is fine, but the characters end up being rather artificial. Dennis (Adam Richman) is a workaholic because he's bad at his job, and while he loves his wife, he's not attracted to her because he still mourns his dead first love (of eleven years). Naomi (Julie Jesneck) is, of course, pregnant, and because she's felt neglected by her husband's long hours, she's recently had an eleven-month affair (which adds just enough ambiguity to the baby). While the little lies that lead up to these big confessions are cute and occasionally romantic, it's pretty obvious where the big lies are leading: how could two people, married for four years, not know these basic things about one another's needs? Ezra's play is also dramatically unbalanced: both actors do good work, but Naomi is made into a sharp-tongued villain, and Dennis is, at heart, a victimized romantic. It's somewhat appropriate that the play comes together, with only minor repetition, up until the very end, but it's ultimately disappointing, too.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Fringe/I HEART HAMAS and other things I'm afraid to tell you

A Christian Palestinian-American woman struggles to define herself in this politically-driven dramady. Too many concepts and opinions jumble together and the production lacks polish, but I Heart Hamas succeeds on the strength of its clever, bold moments.

Photo/IMEU

Review by Cindy Pierre

Jennifer Jajeh's I Heart Hamas: And Other Things I'm Afraid to Tell You is an autobiographical fusion of comedy, politics, and drama that explains what it's like to be a Palestinian-American Christian living in San Francisco. The one-woman show is an angst-riddled response to incessant questions like "Where are you from?" that focuses on the Palestinian experience rather than just her fascinating family tree.

After a clever, oomph-less opening that includes an "It's great to be a Palestinian" parade customized just for her, she traces her lineage back 500 years to the West Bank city of Ramallah, a place birthed in religiously driven slaughter, pride, and indignation. Following the history lesson, Jajeh recounts what it was like living in Ramallah during the second Intifada-Palestinian fight for freedom against Israeli military occupation in 2000.

Unfortunately, the 55-minute show shifts so rapidly from levity to anger and hatred that Jajeh's point of view isn't completely clear. Admittedly, as a human being, she's still in the process of figuring things out, but perhaps one should develop an opinion before stepping on stage. One minute she tries to immerse herself in Muslim culture and the next she's longing for the freedom of the States. In one instance, she's railing against Israelis as the bane of Palestinian existence; in the next, she's taking care of her Jewish friend's cat, Judah. With the same breath, she takes pride in her Christian heritage and makes fun of her own disbelief.

There's a lot going on, but with the exception of her boyfriend, Hakam, her half-formed characters and shaky impressions don't do a service to the plot. Instead, she speeds through things as if she were at a military checkpoint, ready to flee from Israeli soldiers, and director W. Kamau Bell does nothing to rope Jajeh in. Despite the rapid scene changes, the first substantial bit of stagecraft doesn't happen until half an hour into the show, when Middle-Eastern music breaks through a monologue (that sorely needs more lighting and sound effects to support it).

As for her commentary, it's borderline off-color. She compares white kids "slumming" it in Harlem with Israelis "slumming" it in Palestine, which is offensive to Harlem residents, especially with all its recent reconstruction. While this supports the idea that Jajeh is not opposed to controversy--she uses it to her advantage when describing that she understands how someone can become a suicide bomber--it makes some of the political content very heavy.

From a pop-culture muser (Sex and the City) to a near revolutionary, Jajeh grows as a person, but until she figures herself out, it's difficult to latch on enough to be moved by the show. Despite this, I Heart Hamas represents a voice that is rarely heard at a time when the American public most needs to listen.
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Fri, Aug 8 @ 9:15pm, Sat Aug 9 @ 1:15pm, Mon Aug 11 @ 5:15pm, Thu Aug 14 @ 7:45pm, Sun Aug 17 @ 9:30pm, Thu Aug 21 @ 3:15pm, Sun Aug 24 @ 4:15pm Tickets: $15. http://www.fringenyc.org/, The Players Loft, 115 MacDougal Street

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Fringe/The Alice Complex

A student holds her feminist professor captive in this engaging show about an idol gone human. With a good script, tight direction and strong performances, The Alice Complex is a gem in the Fringe ocean.

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Peter Barr Nickowitz is one ballsy playwright. The Alice Complex, his play about a student that takes a feminist author/professor (loosely based on Germaine Greer) hostage, is not a pool that men generally want to dip their toe in, let alone the cannonball that Nickowitz takes from the diving board. Luckily for the audience, there's plenty of water to break his fall with a stellar cast, strong direction, and an impressive script.

When 56-year old feminist professor Sally (Obie winner Lisa Banes) preps her pot roast and table for a dinner party, she never imagines that distraught student Rebecca (Tony Award nominee Xanthe Elbrick) would show up at her door, seeking help. It's fine to say feminist and pot roast in the same sentence, because 25 years after her first book, The Alice Complex, goes to print, Sally's views on life, womanhood and the patriarchal society in which she lives, changes radically. She's now embracing the very things that she was spouting against back when she was young and brimming with passion. And unfortunately for Sally, Rebecca is mad as heck that her former idol is now Martha Stewart. She's so pissed that she entraps Sally's sensibilities with a cockamamie story about being date-raped before she pounces with her true intention: she wants to know how and why Sally got soft.

In a series of flashbacks, flashforwards, monologues, and play-within-a-play schemes, Nickowitz gives the audience the deconstructed answers (and more) to those questions. In addition to younger and older versions of their main characters, Banes and Elbrick also play nine other enriching characters, and sort of brings the thought of walking in another's shoes to fruition. (At one point, Sally snaps "I used to be you," and theatrically, it's true.) The dialogue is snappy and funny, and these gifted actresses do more than justice to it under Bill Oliver's controlled direction. In roughly 75 minutes, the show takes us on a rollercoaster ride of what it means to model oneself after an idol that doesn't live up to the standard. It's emotional, intellectual, and good fun. And judging by the raucous laughter from the men that attended the performance I saw, men can dig it too. Like Alice in Wonderland, The Alice Complex may have elements of fantasy and mystery, but it's all substance.
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Tickets: $15. http://www.fringenyc.org/ The Cherry Lane Theatre: 38 Commerce Street
8/8 at 4:45pm, 8/12 at 7pm, 8/15 at 4:45, 8/16 at 9:30pm, 8/21 at 9:30pm

Cold Storage

The provocative questions about life and death raised in Ronald Ribman’s 1976 dark comedy, Cold Storage, leave an audience pondering, long after the curtain has come down, the eventual descent of their own, figurative curtain. But the play’s two hours of conversation between patients at a cancer hospital, unceasing and yet with volumes more unsaid, requires acting and directing precise enough to find movement and meaning in the dense dialogue. Unfortunately, director and star Richmond Shepard’s inability to provide either amounts to a terminal diagnosis for this show.


Reviewed by Sarah Krasnow

Richmond Shepard plays Mr. Parmegian, a dying old man, most of whose insides have been snipped out or rearranged. Wheelchair-bound, hooked to a catheter, and with nothing to do but lounge on the hospital’s rooftop garden, he has reason to despair. However, his detached life view (even if you work hard, you’ll still die; the secret to the universe is there is no point to anything) indicates that he has rarely sweat the details. Dan Burkarth plays the other patient on the rooftop, Richard Landau, a sober, 40-ish art investment advisor in for exploratory surgery. Trying without much success to relax in the garden (as his tense grip on a candy bar suggests), Landau has no interest in conversation. But that can’t stop champion chatterer Mr. Parmegian from talking, and talking, and talking about silly anecdotes, his past, his philosophy on life and death, or Landau’s wife’s varicose veins. Parmegian opines, Landau reacts, and little else occurs. The way they communicate should therefore tell us all we need to know about them, but this production’s direction is too unfocused and the actors’ delivery too unvaried to be revealing. We end up watching the same back-and-forth ad nauseum: Parmegian talks, Landau interjects, Parmegian announces a personal philosophy, repeat. There are gems of humor and nuggets of wisdom here, but when it’s all the audience can do to pay attention, we don’t have the energy to mine for them.

At the end of Act II, a spotlight shift to Landau finally allows the play to move forward, with the recounting of a concrete, coherent story about his family’s deportation from Nazi Germany. Now, for the first time, Shepard listens and responds to his fellow performer, and Burkarth lets his (as Parmegian puts it) “surface veneer” melt enough to let out a few chuckles. At last, we get it: the shared icy experience of death and loss connects two people, however mismatched. Terminal Parmegian is headed quite literally for cold storage, and Landau, a victim of tragedy, suffers in his own kind of cold storage, the temperature dropping further as he faces possible illness. But as Shepard’s underdeveloped take on Parmegian and Burkarth’s unchanging seriousness as Landau fail to illuminate Ribman’s subtler points, we miss the connection until far too late.

As Landau leaves the roof at the close of Act I, Parmegian calls after him, “Be interesting!”, and we wonder why Shepard hasn’t taken his own character’s advice. At the close of Act II, Parmegian says to Landau, after they agree to meet on the roof again, “I promise you a very interesting day.” Now we believe him, but wish it hadn’t taken two hours of unstructured jabber before we did.

Cold Storage (2 hours, 1 intermission)
Richmond Shepard Theatre (309 East 26th Street)Tickets (212-684-2690): $20, students and seniors $10Performances (through 8/30): Wed. – Sat. @ 8pm

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Fringe/Velvet Scratch: Voyage of No Return

Photo/Evangelos Koulouris

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The Nightmare Before Christmas's Halloween Town seemed like a "cheerie" place to stay, but the Velvet Town of Velvet Scratch: Voyage of No Return is a dreary deathtrap. Margot (Anastasi Revi), the cackling narrator of these unhappily ever afters, sets up each scene, and her cohorts, Laura Morgan and Alexandra Dyranis-Mounis, enact the gruesome effects. Some of these are derivative, like Edward Gorey hosting The Twilight Zone: a ballet dancer chops off her toes so that her feet will fit into some new slippers; an avid reader breaks her only pair of glasses while trying to reach the beautiful books on the top shelf of the library. But when Revi sticks to the fantastic, the show picks up: a cannibalistic cook transforms her doting sister into a bed and sleeps on her; her sister, so happy to finally be useful to her sister, hugs her . . . to death. The show is unfortunately a mixed bag, more tricks than treats, and the redundancy of Revi's thick foreign accent drag down the light nuances of the pantomime that would show us the beatific beneath all that is bestial.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Fringe/Choose Your Own Play

The audience decides how the plot develops in this fun, interactive show, but me thinks it relieth too much on showgoer participation. And although there are interesting characters and amusing scenarios, the choices themselves lack creativity.

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Between 1979 and 1998, author R.A. Montgomery and his son Ramsey cranked out 184 titles for the interactive children's book series, Choose Your Own Adventure. Timmy Wood and Greg Hundemer bring the same sort of enthusiasm and childhood revelry (and some raunch) to their show, Choose Your Own Play. The format is identical to the book: a chapter, a fork in the road calling for the audience's decision, another chapter, another fork. However, although there are plenty of interesting characters and amusing scenarios, there's an overuse of audience participation, with not enough space between the early forks and a lack of inventiveness in the actual choices.

The story begins as You (Jared Doreck, representing the audience) takes a snooze on his "couch" (a couple of blocks). The phone is ringing and his friend Jerry (Paul Salazar) is banging on the door. So do you answer the door, or pick up the phone? Either choice leads to the basic plot, in which gunmen are chasing Jerry, who needs a place to hide out. The subsequent decisions are tied to how You deals with this fretful circumstance, but they're all generally fun and often funny, and the zany, over-the-top ensemble seems up for anything. (Timmy Wood and Alex Bellisle's kooky direction help.)

In roughly an hour and a half (with intermission), the cast romps through "Booktopia," where Waldo hides, Nancy Drew pouts, the Lorax gets crazy, Jane Eyre gets unkempt, and Gandalf the White gives "You Shall Not Pass!" a whole new meaning. Each time, three of a possible 80 versions of the play are performed, with seven actors playing over 200 characters. You'll get drunk with power from this show, choosing life or death or happiness or sadness for the central character. Choose Your Own Play is lighthearted and entertaining, and the best part is, you're not locked into the outcome. You can go back to the beginning and try again. Now, how often in life or in theater do you get a chance to do that? Take control of your destiny and Choose Your Own Play.
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CSV Cultural Center-Milagro, 107 Suffolk Street
8/11 at 7pm, 8/13 at 3:15pm, 8/1 at 9:30, 8/18 at 5:15pm, and 8/21 at 9:30
Tickets: $15. http://www.fringenyc.org/

Monday, August 11, 2008

Fringe/Bound in a Nutshell

This must-see 90-minute adaptation of Hamlet gives new context to Shakespeare's play, redirecting the text with some clever conflation and cuts. This is creativity on par with Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, done within the aesthetically pleasing nutshell of a theater, and the only thing that should be bound is you--off to see it, that is.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

It's not as if Shakespeare needs to be adapted, but if you're going to, it'd better be something new, bold, truthful, or necessary. Bound in a Nutshell is all of these things, a modern 90-minute Hamlet that (like last year's brilliant Macbeth adaptation, A Walking Shadow) begins near the end (Hamlet having just killed Polonius), and then strikingly wends through Hamlet's mind. Imprisoned, Hamlet is now physically tortured, too, and remains on stage throughout. To do this, Gregory Sherman and Gregory Wolfe take liberties with the text, merging characters like First Player and Laertes with Horatio, repurposing the Gravedigger as a torturer (a nifty feat in redirection, Yorick and all), and excising comic characters like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

For fans of Hamlet, it's an exciting shakeup, but for strangers to Shakespeare, it's also one of the clearest tellings of this haunted tale, thanks largely to Chris Haas, whose Hamlet is violent yet fluid (like Bill Irwin). Wolfe's ingenious staging also plays each scene to its strength: his "too too solid flesh would melt" is defiantly delivered to a surveillance camera: for the first time, we see Claudius (Christopher Yates) and Gertrude (Kathy Keane) react to what is usually a secondhand account. There's restraint too: when Hamlet yells "get thee to a nunnery," his words go unheard and unfelt by Ophelia (Monique Vukovic), who sits helplessly on the other side of a prison visitation cell's solid glass window, begging her lover to pick up the phone. Best of all is the poetic license taken with the imagery: Hamlet, strapped to a chair, being tortured into a confession of madness, sees Ophelia--who has just drowned--walk slowly and silently by.

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it's hard to keep from waxing poetic on Moonwork's fantastic production. This is what it means to adapt a play, and on a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "not to be" and 5 being "wondrous strange," Bound in a Nutshell gets a perfect 5.

Cherry Lane Theater (38 Commerce Street)
8/12 @2:30 PM | 8/15 @ 9:15 PM | 8/19 @ 9:15 PM | 8/23 @ 4:30 PM

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Fringe/The Boy in the Basement

Photo/Luke Ratray

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Everything depends on context: most people would use a box full of contemporary romance novels for firewood, but not Katharine Heller. She still used those books for fuel, sparking her imagination, but the only thing on fire is her playful, hot, pulp of a tale: The Boy in the Basement. Heller's show plays to a similar crowd as last year's Beebo Brinker Chronicles, but, as an original show, takes itself far less seriously, and is unabashedly fun. When a very hot burglar (Tom Macy) gets caught in the act by four coeds, he finds himself a rather willing sex slave, out to satisfy the needs of a Venezuelan dominatrix (Heller), a holistic hippie (Anna Stumpf), and an "experienced" woman (Lynne Rosenberg). He does that, but in the process, falls for the naive Midwestern virgin (Meghan Powe) who thinks that he's doing yard work as punishment. The side plots, which involve a double-cast Michael Solis, aren't as effective, but Heller's choice to make the narrator, Catherine DuCheval (Nick Fondulis), an excitable guy is clever, and it not only provides a huge boost to the comic atmosphere but helps the show to remain uninhibited as it leaps from scene to scene.

The SoHo Playhouse (15 Vandam Street)
8/14 @ 3:45 PM | 8/21 @ 11:45 PM | 8/23 @ 10:00 PM

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Fringe/Tiny Feats of Cowardice

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Susan Bernfield's mundane fears (of everything) aren't nearly as interesting as the political musings of Rose Mary Woods (from Stretch). However, that makes her latest play exactly what it claims to be: a tiny feat, for Bernfield is captivating throughout, an Everywoman who, aided by Rachel Peters's music (a nice trick that has not yet become a gimmick), denounces single engine Cessnas, the constant worry of being a mother, the neverending precipices of the world and its possibilities: "Stolen passwords/stoned bikers/hungry sharks/malignant cysts." Her narrative jumps from a trip to Belize to her friendless childhood and surprisingly (but not that surprisingly) to 9/11, and the end result comes across like a Sondheim chamber musical, buttressed by charming lines like, "I think, ah, for you my dears, the sky's the limit. Please don't be astronauts." Daniella Topol, who directs, could help Bernfield a lot by helping to vary the levels of fluttery yet functional fear, but on the whole, it's a very winning performance, and a very winning play.

The Players Theater (115 MacDougal Street)
8/11 @ 9:30 | 8/14 @ 2:45 | 8/16 @ 3:30 | 8/22 @ 7:15

Friday, August 08, 2008

Summer Shorts 2

Summer calls to mind many things, but very rarely does it conjure up a cramped studio apartment, an I Am My Own Wife level of clutter lining the various shelves and nooks. Well, lotion still trumps commotion, especially when it's so loosely connected (by light jazz, of all things), but a few bright spots in the second annual Summer Shorts festival keep things cool enough to merit the trip out to 59E59.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Every ocean has waves, and every beach has some rough patches. It's somewhat understandable, then (though still unfortunate), that Summer Shorts has some abysmal pieces, Leslie Lyles's The Waters of March plaguing Series A, and Keith Reddin's Our Time Is Up mussing up Series B. In the first, Amy Irving is asked to juggle a near incomprehensible suicide speech about her empty, alcoholic lounge life, with a bad Portuguese nightclub act, the result of which are a lot of dropped notes and flubbed transitions. In the latter, which is even less creative, Sharon (Clara Hopkins Daniels) turns the psychoanalysis back on Calley (Janet Zarish) and ends up with a punchline that even Freud would've been hard pressed to find significance in. It doesn't help that Ms. Daniels is so passive that she seems bored to be onstage and that Ms. Zarish is so determined to be melodramatic enough for the both of them.

But from there, both programs get far better, with actual characters to back up even flimsy plots, as in Eduardo Machado's Crossing the Border (Series A), a tale of a Mexican father's struggle to turn his intellectual son into a professional athlete, the point being that brains won't get them green cards or respect. (The cramped space, unfortunately, and the lazy acting don't help to convey this message.) Michael Domitrovich's On Island (Series B) also makes a nice go of it: while his groom-with-cold-feet plot is nothing new, Leo's attempt to help his brother, George, feel more comfortable about marrying Sandi, especially in the honest recounts of their childhood memories, sells the piece.

Continuing the even distribution between programs, Neil Koenigsberg and John Augustine both turn out nicely rounded plays. On A Bench starts with explosive exaggeration: Robert (David Beck) attempts to study on a park bench as Anne (Mary Joy) loudly enjoys a black-and-white cookie and rudely interrupts. But the piece isn't about creepy busybodies: instead, by placing the bench across from the Stonewall Inn, Koenigsberg justifies Robert's aggressively antisocial behavior by his discomfort with his sexuality, and makes Anne more than a Florida retiree by giving her a younger brother who vanished in those terrible riots. PeopleSpeak operates the same way: the play very comically opens with Siobhan (the excellent Sherry Anderson) getting interrupted mid-suicide by a call from her mother (the persistently creative sort who sends musical affirmations by mail), but then using that dark comedy to turn the mirror back on our isolated, text-heavy cellular world. Even when things go overboard, with a friendly waiter (the comic Nick Westrate) "channeling" an overly moral spirit to neatly bring the play to a close, the energy is buoyant enough to keep things afloat.

Of course, the real reason to see either series is for Roger Hedden's Deep in the Hole (Series A) or Terrance McNally and Skip Kennon's mini-musical, Plaisir D'Amour (Series B). Hedden's piece is a nonstop satire of the partying life--that is, what is "too much"? Billy Hopkins builds the action slowly, going from an argument about the deadening woes of bottom-shelf liquor to a rousing game of spin the bottle and ultimately to its logical conclusion: accidentally possibly snorting anthrax. (That sentence makes more sense in context.) The whole thing is held together by the four actors, especially the carelessly suave David Ross, but it's the everyday tone that defines this piece. As for Plaisir D'Amour, it's the most polished of the eight plays, with outstanding performances from Stephanie D'Abruzzo and Jonathan C. Kaplan as they chronicle a relationship from the desperate single life to the troubled married life and eventually, with their own children now married, to the comfortable afterglow of a once passionate life. Far too many one-acts, even decent ones, come across as ultimately empty etudes, but this musically simplistic piece does for a transient comedy what Prelude & Liebestod did for drama.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

MITF: Sympathetic Division

Terse, well-executed and poignant, Sweeter Theater’s production of Sympathetic Division effectively parallels neuroscience with familial and spousal relationships to illustrate how a smart couple’s drawn-out unraveling deeply affected their daughters.

Reviewed by Ilena George

Caught between her cold neuroscientist professor father and her mentally unstable mother, Julie (Colleen Allen) is a wise-beyond-her-years academic over-achiever who provides her family with a degree of stability, at a high personal cost. Encouraging her dyslexic sister Charlotte (Robyn Frank) to apply to college, handling her father George’s (Ron Stetson) estrangement, and monitoring her mother Sheila’s (Charlotte Patton) medication takes its toll, and Julie turns to prescription meds to cope. The action flips backwards and forwards in time, and each scene is introduced by the research topic members of the family were pursuing at the time.

The narrative is predicated partly on the conceit that neurological phenomena correspond to human interactions. For instance, divorce is compared to splitting apart the two hemispheres of the brain, accomplished by severing the nerve bundle that connects them. This generally works quite well as it also illustrates the family’s difficulty toeing the line between brain function (and dysfunction) as an academic exercise and as a brutal reality.

The minimal set, consisting of lecterns, a table, and chairs, complemented with several props, allows the pace to remain fast and the transitions smooth. Summer Lee Jack’s costumes, including a bow-tied and argyle socks-wearing professor’s uniform, help establish the time frame as well as the ages of the characters.

Although not all the cast’s performances were on the level of Ms. Allen’s, the playwright’s realistic dialogue and the ensemble’s restraint keeps the action from verging into melodrama. As part of the Midtown Theater Festival, the show was staged in the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre, where the denouement physically unfolds almost too close for comfort but in an emotionally honest way that compels you not to look away.

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Sympathetic Division by Gia Marotta
Directed by Maura Farver
Dorothy Strelsin Theatre (312 W. 36th Street)

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

MITF/Out of Control

Do motivational speakers enourage their listeners to overcome their addictions, or simply empty their wallets?

Review by Ilana Novick

Like a guest who overstays their welcome, the motivational speaker Peter Quick was supposed to simply to give workshops, but instead stays long enough to disrupt the relationships between the members of Overindulgers Annonymous in Out of Control by Bridget Harris. Sweetie (Kara Ross), a waitress with a guileless smile and braided hair, has an innocence that belies her lover abandoning her as a teenage mom. Her overindulgence is marijuana. Bunny (Marca Leigh), an aging bombshell with a self-professed drinking problem, longs for the sexual attention her husband is no longer interested in providing. Delores (Dorothy Frey) has a shoplifting problem. Brenda (Beverly Prentice) may or may not be a sex addict, but her predilection for eating slices of cake at a time suggests an eating disorder. Is Quick the fire under the backside that these women need to cure their bad habits, or is he a man unfairly judging women’s habits, using his authority as a speaker to mask his sexism?

The group’s meetings, with the women all sitting on black crates in a circle, forms the basis of set and of the action, with scenes alternating between the women's meetings and Quick's lectures. Only Sweetie and Brenda are seen outside of these meetings, at home and at work, which gives their characters more room to develop. The rest seem not to exist outside of the meetings, which means we only get a narrow explanation of what's behind their addictions. Dempsey is a credibly motivating (but slightly sleazy) speaker, all expressive hand gestures, mile-wide smiles, and a hard stare, and he sprouts infomercial affirmations like “tame the beast within.” He unsettlingly decries feminism for giving women too many choices, and implies that their addictions are a result of their freedom…the freedom to binge. Though there may be a grain of truth in that, the play disturbingly never questions his statement. The possibility of a debate is brushed aside in favor of catty gossip among the members. First Sweetie is lauded for her steadfast devotion to her daughter, the next she’s getting high in her laundry room and watching the home shopping network. When Delores steals from Walmart, should we laugh when she claims she’s shopping not stealing, or look down on her for stealing to make up for her feelings of being neglected by her husband?

Out of Control has potential as a satire of the self-help industry and of the ways in which women can undermine each other, even as they claim to be supportive. But it can’t decide whether to laugh at or support the quest to cure addiction, or whether Peter Quick is the tough love these women need or a charismatic con artist making money off of women’s insecurities. It also doesn't provide enough evidence of the character's lives outside of the group to answer the questions it raises.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Edgewise

In Eliza Clark's darkly comic Edgewise, the whiff of teenage bombast is bombed away with surgical precision, mundane ramblings quickly turned to panicky attempts to restore order to a safe little (Mc)world. From the convincing actors to the sharp set design (which contrasts torture in the storeroom with the service with a smile of the cheery dining room) and smart direction (which plays the moment-to-moment shifts in full so that the exaggerated comedy never compromises the integrity of the situation) it's a clever look at what a Civil War on Terror between an indistinguishable Us and Them might look like: an order of paranoia with a side of fear.

Review by Aaron Riccio

When the war comes home to America, it won't be with a whimper or a bang: it'll be with fries. That's the beauty of Eliza Clark's darkly comic Edgewise, in which three normal teens (i.e., pot is smoked, curses are flung, and balls—"big psychic balls"—are what it's all about) find their everyday Saturday morning shift at the local (Mc) Dougal's interrupted by an air strike and a bloodied stranger, Louis (Jedadiah Schultz). The whiff of bombast is bombed away with surgical precision, forcing the characters to grow up rather quickly, their mundane ramblings quickly turned to panicky attempts to restore order to their safe little world.

For Ruckus (David Gelles Hurwitz), a violent fabulist, Louis's arrival is an opportunity to safely back up his psychotic facade (he wants a gun "Uh, to kill people. To look at. To stroke."). Faster than a short-order cook can grill a burger, he's interrogating Louis like a hopelessly miscast action-film cop: "I'm aware of the way these things work," he says, and then later, "I think you know that I'm about to get mean. That you better start telling the truth or things are gonna get kind of bad for you." Thanks to Daniel Zimmerman's clever set design, which contrasts this dimly lit storeroom with the cheery dining area, we also get to observe Marco (Justin Levine) and Emma (Jessica Howell), trying to cope with the situation. It's a direct manifestation of the script's meditation on what a Civil War on Terror between an indistinguishable Us and Them might look like: an order of paranoia with a side of fear.

It's also the mark of great direction on Lila Neugebauer's part, who has the actors play the moment-to-moment shifts in full, so that the exaggerated comedy never compromises the reality of the situation. At one point, Ruckus enters the kitchen and, catching the shy Marco finally responding to the commandingly flirtatious Emma's advances, calls him out for stealing a Sprite. Never mind that Ruckus's hands are covered in blood: what's important is how the world spins madly on, latching onto small things to keep its head straight. There's a certain sick truth to the prevalent commercialism: in the midst of all this chaos, orders continue to come through the loudspeaker, and even the potential bad guys, like Paul (Eric Gilde), hide their agendas with preppy cheer and service with a smile, no matter how much blood's on their hands.

It's a terrific production all around, for it is eerily prescient, strangely comic, and utterly believable. Clark's work calls to mind other exaggerative realists, like Sam Shepard, in that the character-driven scenes build up a world that is, at times, impossible to reject. Imagine a New Jersey that is nightmarish not on account of being New Jersey, but for the corpses casually punctuating the road, a world where mothers shower in their clothes so as to always be at the ready, and then imagine all the ways in which life forces itself to go on.

Ultimately, Edgewise chooses to be a coming-of-age story, but despite the fast-food setting or the single act, there's nothing rushed in the development, and Clark never misses an opportunity to normalize the atmosphere of war: When Ruckus mentions that Emma can write her college essay on it, she says, "Sure, I'll write my college essay about the time me and two stoners tied some guy to a chair in the back room of a fucking Dougal's while his leg bled out all over the floor. I'll write about that. Great. Thank you." To wit, Ruckus replies that she might want to change the location: a homeless shelter would play better to the admissions board. Scarily enough, isn't that what's really important?