According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Ryan Nicholoff and Dena Kology in Woyzeck
Photo by Emily Owens PR

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre
[See also: Jason Fitzgerald's review]

Many liberties are taken in Counting Squares Theatre's production of Woyzeck, but most of them are not for the best. In this version of Buchner's work, the setting has moved from Germany to Iraq and the Midwest. But things start to get a little too creative: Woyzeck's (Ryan Nicholoff) madness, brought on by the damages of war, is represented by an Andrews Sisters-type trio that function more as harpies and burlesque performers than the harmony group that is known for entertaining troupes. These talented singers look like something out of a Tim Burton film (great costuming by Karen Walcott), but end up dominating the show so much that the wartime drama becomes a poor musical. Although the cast is full of spirit and energy, the show is oversexed and doesn't come close to the social commentary on poverty that the unfinished play intended (or, at least what analysts have concluded). Instead, it inserts inappropriate humor into serious circumstances, and turns chaos and confusion into hushed whispers that are echoed.

The production includes the original content about poverty—Woyzeck earns extra money for his unfaithful girlfriend, Marie (Dena Kology) and his illegitimate baby by taking part in medical experiments like living on an all-pea diet and performing menial tasks for his Captain (Aaron Kirkpatrick)—but these scenes don't have the impact that they should to get the audience to understand his plight. Even the theme of poor people lacking morals because of their poverty gets lost in the numerous song and dance numbers. And the murder scene, the climax of the show, falls flat due to poorly conceived staging by Joshua Chase Gold. Woyzeck may be marginally entertaining, but its relevance to Iraq and present economic issues such as rising gas prices is moot, beyond the notes on the playbill. Sometimes sticking to the meat of the script is better than getting carried away by the trimmings.

Woyzeck (80 minutes, no intermission)
Under St. Mark's (94 St. Mark's Place, NY, NY)
Tickets: $23

Monday, September 29, 2008

The English Channel

Plagiarism and politics are explored in this near flawless, aesthetically pleasing production about Shakespeare and his muses.

Sean Dugan and Stafford Clark-Price in The English Channel
Photo by Shirley Herz Associates

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Robert Brustein's The English Channel is a riveting, fictitious account of how William Shakespeare borrowed from English poet and dramatist Christopher Marlowe and a handful of others to craft his own genius. Of course, that cat has been out of the bag for a long time now, but it’s never been suggested, even facetiously, that Marlowe gave Shakespeare his blessings to do so. Brustein takes liberties with both political and literary history by painting the Bard's story against the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, but it’s all for the best in this hilarious, vastly entertaining dramedy.

From the opening sequences where Marlowe, played majestically by Sean Dugan, appears with a bloody, eyeless socket, The English Channel never ceases to thrill. Having already suffered his brutal death by knife, he returns to tell the audience about the events that lead to his untimely demise. Those include practicing atheism, allegedly working as a spy for Queen Elizabeth I, and having homosexual encounters. His atheistic views go hand-in-hand with his spying and his writing, giving him a reason to watch the “wafer-eating” Mary Queen of Scots (who planned to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I) and fueling his politically bent plays and poetry. In his spare time, he holds court with his sometime lover and friend, Hal (Brian Robert Burns), the Third Earl of Southampton; Emilia Lanier (Lori Gardner), the Dark Lady of the Sonnets; and his poet-to-order, William Shakespeare (the temperate but true Stafford Clark-Price).

The historical “wallpaper” serves as a nice subplot to the production, but the focus is the process of creating art and the fear that originality may be dead. Rather than mourn the death of innovation, Brustein ridicules the practice of stealing and regurgitating, turning it into a laugh marathon. His script also supports his comfort with the borrowing, expressed best in a great scene in which Marlowe and Shakespeare engage in a suave improvisation, where Shakespeare re-enacts a series of scenes from his future plays that Marlowe slyly references. Brustein’s writing is frequently anti-woman and cynical but despite that, is wickedly charming.

In an excellent ensemble, Dugan, with an ever present undercurrent of humor in his resonant voice and Burns, with his infinitely watchable flamboyance and suppressed pangs of emotion (except in one instance where his anxiety shows in his trembling fingers) stand out. As a last-minute stand-in to Rosal Colon, Gardner does the best she can to not read from the script that she carries, but what she compensates for in enthusiasm and professionalism could not erase reality: “jet black hair, honest eyes, and olive skin” hath she not.

Luckily, Daniela Varon's fantastic, whimsical direction and Clark-Price's fight choreography ensure the authenticity of the rest of the visuals. Mike Billings’s set evokes a vast knowledge of England and its characters' legacies (through props, parchment paper, plumes, etc): even the ceiling of the small stage is adorned with some of Laura Crow’s spare but lavish costumes. It’s not just visuals, either: Scott Killian's soundtrack consists of great classical music sound bites that are edited in such a way that they support the tension and romance of the piece.

The English Channel may take place amidst plague, religious unrest and sexual escapades, but the show streamlines these fragments into a fun, compelling, and clever 85 minutes of nonstop entertainment. It’ll leave you wishing you could sail down the Channel for 85 more.

The English Channel (85 minutes, no intermission)
Abingdon Theatre (312 West 36th street, NY, NY)
Tickets: $20
Through October 5th

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Parent/Teacher Conference Plays

The Parent/Teacher Conference Plays may be set in a school, but it's far from a textbook case of theater, and on that rubric-smashing ground alone, it deserves to be noticed. But it has gold stars in each of its playwrights and extra credit through the backing of a edgy, unconventional theater company: if you miss this, consider yourself far too grounded.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

For anyone who thinks they know theater, it's time to go back to school. Specifically, the Village Community School, where the daring Electric Pear Productions has set up The Parent/Teacher Conference Plays, an intimate series of three site-specific one-acts that put the "cool" back into "school." (There's even a bake sale in the cafeteria.) For our entertainment, they've ripped up the lesson plans and gone with a more mature sort of education: Ann Marie Healy's "The Grafton School" indulges in a little ritual sacrifice, the teacher in Clay McLeod Chapman's "Rugrats" is upset about getting herpes from your kindergartner, and the balloon-animal condoms of Zayd Dohrn's "Sex-Ed" are far from the biggest problem with this math teacher-turned-sexpert's lesson plan. By thrusting us into the tiny chairs of various classrooms and putting us in the hands of stylistically different playwrights, The Parent/Teacher Conference Plays captures the fear and excitement of that first day of school: you never know quite what's coming next.

Healy's piece takes a very human issue--the desperate attempts of Frederick (Christian Conn) and Miranda (Erin Felgar) to place their daughter in capable hands--and twists it with a comic and slightly supernatural edge. (One should always be cautious of a school with a 12:1 teacher/student ratio.) As the creepily overkind headmistress Nathalie (Kathryn Grody) plies her guests with chocolates and statistics, Miranda's nerves start to overwhelm her, leading to trust issues with her scholastically enthusiastic husband. It's well-acted, and the close confines help to play up Felgar's panic; the only problem is that Kerry Whigham's direction only uses a small corner of the classroom, basically turning it into a miniature theater.

Francesca Mantani Arkus, who directs Dohrn's play, takes a far more active approach: the blackboard is covered in graphic slang (from "fuzz box" to "Ground Zero" and "schlong" to "Little Elvis" . . . I hope someone's brought an eraser), a half-dozen containers of condoms (and a dental dam) are strewn across an activity table, and Craig (Gabriel Field) is in the middle of inflating a condom when his final parent, Melanie (Nairoby Otero), walks in. Dohrn's well-timed and exaggerated jokes are similar to Healy's, but his material is more attuned to school life (he even addresses the afterschool special), and because Arkus keeps the actors moving through the room, stepping over audience toes (even as the pointed dialogue steps on them), the play has more of an effect in line with the overall aesthetic.

It's Clay McLeod Chapman's piece--and Rebecca Lingafelter's performance--that nail the whole thing down. Chapman's penchant for monologues allows Lingafelter to directly address the audience as if it were one collective parent, and his use of beautiful ugliness ("snot like petrified mother of pearl," "rose petal sores") is enhanced by all of a classroom's inherent contradictions. The play builds perfectly, too, from Lingafelter's initial descriptions of unsanitary behavior in the classroom to her self-pitying explanation of why she never gets a second date (who'd call her back after getting pink eye?) and all the way up to her twisted tale of revenge. The entire thing is also neatly paralleled with the grittier side of Thanksgiving: the increasingly infected natives had very little to be thankful for.

The Parent/Teacher Conference Plays may be set in a school, but it's far from a textbook case of theater, and on that rubric-smashing ground alone, it deserves to be noticed. But it has gold stars in each of its playwrights and extra credit through the backing of a edgy, unconventional theater company: if you miss this, consider yourself far too grounded.

The Parent/Teacher Conference Plays (70 min., no intermission)
Village Community School (272 West 10th Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00
Performances: 9/25, 9/26, 9/27 @ 8:00

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Underpants

Compared to the fine wine of Steve Martin's last play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, The Underpants is a six-pack of cheap beer, hastily chugged to numb the unhappiness of home life. Directed on high spin by Seth Soloway, this production manages--with the help of manic comic actors like Nat Cassidy and the sublime subtlety of Catia Ojeda--to iron out the kinks of the Carl Sternheim's underlying characters and get back to the wild and crazy puns of Martin's adaptation.

Photo/Jen Maufrais Kelly

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Steve Martin's certainly the right person to pun . . . ahem, pen . . . an adaptation of Carl Sternheim's 1911 social comedy, The Underpants: who better to, um . . . beat around the bush? The problem is that those frilly things are worn under a wardrobe of ordinary characters, stifling the more natural wit that burst out of every page of Martin's earlier play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile. No wonder, then, that Seth Soloway finds it necessary to put this Gallery Players production on high spin, overplaying the comedy in attempt to wring out the humor . . . an attempt that not only works, but, thanks to the stellar cast, irons out some of the kinks.

Picasso was a fine glass of wine toasting the artistic genius of our time; The Underpants is a six-pack of cheap beer hastily chugged to numb the unhappiness of our home life. Were the circumstances slightly different, Louise Maske (Catia Ojeda) could easily be Ibsen's Nora, but the comic tone is set when her husband, Theo (Justin Herfel) impotently criticizes her for her loose underpants, the scandalous sight of which--in broad daylight! at the King's parade!--have put his clerking job at risk. Martin throws in highbrow humor--"The whole event lasted two seconds," says Louise, to which Theo retorts, "Haven't you heard? Time is relative!"--but Soloway makes the right choice in speeding through these jokes, lumping them right in with the blunt innuendos of the farce that follow ("I'll slip in and out without you knowing," promises an adulterer).

As it turns out, the underpants have created a stir in this repressed 1910 German empire, and it's not long before two oglers/lodgers arrive: Versati (Nat Cassidy), a wildly liberal romantic poet, and Cohen (Jason Schuchman), a conservatively nebbish barber. Along with Theo's clockwork moralism, these men set the tone of the play, while Louise finds herself alternately liberated and frustrated by their advances, egged on by a nosy neighbor, Gertrude (Amy L. Smith). Again, Martin struggles to put his voice in Sternheim's characters, and though he trips over Cohen's bland attempts to hide his Jewishness (no fault of the very funny Schuchman), he wildly succeeds with Versati, a wild and crazy guy who is closer to his own heart (and apparently Cassidy's, for he steals every single scene).

According to Martin, the play symbolizes the clash between romance, jealousy, and fantasy, but those things are too lofty for the base material. Instead, Soloway plays it for laughs, and by shedding the bulky morals, he gets them, exposing the sheer side of Martin's Underpants in all their glory.

The Underpants (90 min., no intermission)
Gallery Players Theater (199 14th Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00
Performances: 9/25-9/27 @ 8 | 9/27 @ 2 | 9/28 @ 3

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Heaven in Your Pocket

A Kansas City nightclub, sassy singing ladies, cowboy boots, and Southern accents – who wouldn’t expect a rip roarin’ good time from this new musical, buoyantly titled Heaven in Your Pocket? But with its unremarkable story, mundane and mopey dialogue, and pseudo-country music, this show won’t do much to lift your spirits.

Reviewed by Sarah Krasnow

Stage right, a spotlit woman raises her dyed-red, mulleted head, and in an Oklahoman drawl invokes the metaphor of life as a road, whose unplanned detours can make the ride a little bumpy, but which eventually leads us where we were always meant to go. This Southwesterner is Arlene (Rebecca Spencer), a hardheaded single mom and country singer, prepping us for the story of her latest detour with her brassy best friend, Mary Celeste (Lisa Asher), and ingĂ©nue daughter, Kay Lee (Pheonix Vaughn), in tow. The three gals are natives of Heaven, OK, en route to a gig in Nashville, but who end up at a defunct Kansas City nightclub, willed to Kay Lee by her absent, and now deceased, father. Finding little besides the man’s most recent girlfriend and some tattered scenery, the tuneful trio swoop down on the ramshackle building and try to glam it up: it’s like To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, only without the drag queens.

The actors keep their accents thick and their energy high as they bustle about, one-liners like “I’d hate to end up on Oprah for the wrong reasons” and silly political references trying to keep the mood light. But with the characters' constant rehashing of the past and fretting over the future, especially via dialogue as fresh as a frozen burrito, there’s little to keep us optimistic or, for that matter, interested. Even the country music is missing its twang, taking a piano-heavy route that is more reliant on ballads than boot-stomping. Two lively scenes—one a campy, low-budget commercial shoot for the club and the other a doo-wop musical number that reveals sequins and scarves beneath choir robes—are like candy in contrast with the bland material; they’re not any more nutritious, but at least they have some flavor.

With affection for the Oklahoma town in mind, Barbara Kingsolver wrote Pigs in Heaven, and Three Dog Night wrote “Well I’ve never been to Heaven…”, but to hear it from Arlene, Mary Celeste, and Kay Lee, there’s nothing heavenly about it. Rather, it’s a Nowheresville speck on a map, a Podunk place people try to get away from or slink back to when they’re down on their luck. For the audience, Heaven in Your Pocket is about as meaningful as Heaven, OK: neither a celestial nor hellish experience, it’s something closer to Purgatory.

Heaven in Your Pocket (2hrs., 15-minute intermission)
New York Musical Theatre Festival
45th Street Theatre, 354 W. 45th St
Tues., Sept. 23, 4:30 p.m.; Sun., Sept. 28, 1 p.m.
Tickets (212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111: $20 or

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Refuge of Lies (Cindy's Review)

A former Nazi criminal turns tail and runs from life imprisonment in the Netherlands, becomes a Mennonite and starts a new life in Canada until a reporter discovers his whereabouts. Although there are some good performances and good moral questions, the staging is terrible and ultimately ruins the show.

Richard Mawe in Refuge of Lies

Photo/Chris Davis

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

In Ron Reed's Refuge of Lies, Rudi (Richard Maw), a former Nazi collaborator turned peaceful Mennonite is found by Simon (Drew Dix), a reporter and descendant of Holocaust victims who is hell-bent on seeking justice for his family. (The story is loosely based on Jacob Luitjens, a member of the Landwacht [SS-appointed Dutch land guard] during World War II who avoided life imprisonment by escaping from the Netherlands to Paraguay and into anonymity after the war.) This Holocaust drama may not be set in Auschwitz, but it brings enough of Auschwitz to the stage, through visuals and circumstances, to ask you to decide over and over again between justice and grace. But while you're wincing over all the work you have to do, you'll wish that better choices were made to bring this potentially powerful story to life.

The show begins slowly in the midst of Rudi's new outwardly peaceful and mundane life with his wife Nettie (Lorraine Serabian) and friends Hannah (Joanne Joseph) and Conrad (Arthur Pellman), but Rudi's inner turmoil is also established early; a mysterious Hasidic Jew, carrying what appears to be a baby bundle, stands off in the dark as Rudi references speaks of a strange vision he had. This marks the first of many sightings of this man, but future appearances are accompanied by loud, rapping noises (illogically not made on the door) and an eerie sound clip by Josh Leibert that evokes science fiction, not drama.

We are first introduced to Simon as a narrator in both a visually and strategically awkward place, entering from an area that has already been established as the Vanderwaal household and after the plot has begun to unravel. His speech about Holocaust horrors runs long, is sensationalized, and is heavy with intentions that could have been dramatized in the action or omitted entirely. It also slows down the already sluggish start of the play. But both stage manager Amanda Gwin and director Steve Day are at fault for the staging problems; Day created them with messy direction and Gwin, as the eyes and ears of the show, failed to provide much of a warning.

The backstage is also too involved in the production. As the location of the various bathroom scenes (where Nettie, not Rudi, washes away her guilt for marrying a criminal) as well as where Rudi tends to his pigeons, it's a safe, hidden zone for the actors, but a frustrating one for the audience, which has to wonder what could have been left out or referred to in the dialogue instead. What’s more, these segues overlap, which leaves little time to digest the moral dilemmas.

The plot aims to communicate the difficulty of deciding between justice and mercy, but does so in such a flashy and relentless manner that it bludgeons them, and us, to death. Rudi's domineering father makes an appearance in two scenes to, in essence, remove some of the blame for Rudi's actions, but this weak strategy doesn't absolve him of guilt. Nor does Reed want to do so: guilt is Rudi’s constant struggle on the road to redemption. For that, he seeks comfort and solace in Pastor Jake's (John Knauss) advice, but when Jake administers communion to Rudi in the dark from a small vial hidden in a black box, it looks more like a drug deal than a sympathetic moment.

Refuge of Lies is not bereft of heart and sentiment, though. Serabian is wonderful as Nettie, showing great anguish over her husband's true identity and the imprisonment that he faces. She serves as an instrument of grace herself: in the span of a few minutes, she goes from distress over her husband's two identities to a passionate defense of him against Simon and his niece, Rachel (Libby Skala). Despite Skala’s exaggerated body movements and head-shaking (meant to show childish frustration), her character's unease with Simon's mission strikes a powerful balance between revenge and forgiveness. Although Mawe does a good job of portraying Rudi's unrest, Serabian is even more convincing in her turmoil.

Although Refuge of Lies repeatedly asks whether or not Rudi deserves to leave his sordid past behind, the opposing sides of justice and grace are not as deadlocked as perhaps the production intended to be. Reed clearly wants Rudi and Simon to be on equal moral ground, but guest appearances by Rudi's father, the support from his family and friends, and the greater stage time given to Rudi over Simon suggests that the empathy should lie with Rudi. And though there are good performances, they can't save the show from the distracting and detrimental staging issues. Lies don’t make much of a refuge, but the bulldozing presentation knocks the flimsy frame down altogether.
Refuge of Lies (2hrs with intermission)
Lion Theater (410 West 42nd street, NY NY 10036)
Tickets: $18
Through September 28th.

Refuge of Lies (Aaron's Review)

Dealing with the aftermath of the Holocaust and questioning the morality of vengeance is too boring for Ron Reed: he abandons this promising based-on-a-true-story after thirty minutes. Instead, he takes a Miller-lite approach, writing a guilt-triggered memory play that grows increasingly erratic and nonsensical. Steve Day's direction and the cast's audio-book presentation are lost and lifeless, as dehumanized as the villainous, vengeful Simon would make the possibly heroic Nazi collaborator Rudi.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

When a play about Holocaust vengeance ends up playing anti-Semitic stereotypes, it's difficult to take seriously. In Ron Reed's Refuge of Lies, this problem is compounded by an unreliable "hero," Rudi (Richard Mawe), who was definitely once called Werner but only may have betrayed the Jewish population in Holland and who, in any case, is now a 71-year-old baptized Sunday school teacher with a slowly eroding mind. If the punishment must fit the crime, as Simon (Drew Dix) believes, then Rudi must be separated from his wife, Nettie (Lorraine Serabian), extradited to a specific location in Europe, held prisoner for a certain amount of time, and possibly be killed. (In this sick cycle, the punishment ends up being worse than the crime of collaboration.) Never mind that this is an adaptation of a true story (look up Jacob Luitjens): Reed overwrites every circumstance, thoroughly repeating himself in this exhausting two-act, and the result is far from truthful.

Aside from the sloppy, sentimental writing, Refuge of Lies also faces major problems from its cast and crew: only Michael Jarett, who creates an effortless and transporting lighting design for all the flashbacks and symbolic changes, seems in charge of his craft. The rest aren't terrible (only Libby Skala, who wildly gesticulates every line--probably because they lack such naturalism to begin with--is unwatchable), but they stand like wobbly dominos, falling over one another in the scene changes. Death of a Salesman is an excellent template, but Miller's style has gone to pot here, first used too broadly, telegraphing every move, and later used too erratically, with the action taking place in the shadows behind a scrim.

The picture Reed wants to get across is quickly painted in the first scene: Rudi and Nettie play cards amicably with their friends, Hannah (Joanne Joseph) and Conrad (Arthur Pellman). Upstage of this golden hour, in accordance with Rudi's playful story of a hallucination he had while driving, is the approaching storm: a Hassidic Jew, lurking in the shadows. Things grow more heavyhanded, as Simon rails against his prop of a niece, Rachel (Skala), explaining that in a few generations, no-one will remember the Holocaust. Just as he dehumanizes Rudi, focusing specifically on a past crime, so does Reed turn the characters into the pawns of a story. "Sure that's what he did," apologizes Rachel, "but is that all he ever did?" In this play, especially given the chessboard staging from Steve Day, it is: as Rudi, Mawe is reduced more and more to a stock character, and by the end, turned into nothing more than--literally--a shadow puppet, as two-dimensional as they come, and the epitome of a black-and-white plot.

It's impossible for material so freighted with an emotional background to be lifeless on stage, but it's the audience that does the lion's share of work in Refuge of Lies, filling in their own blanks. When, forty years from now, an archivist reads this and decides to punish the playwright for the crime of this play, let us hope that he finds it in him to be slightly more compassionate than me.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Southern Promises

Slavery is wrong, period, a simple truth that will surprise no-one in the educated crowd at PS122. What will surprise them--especially given the emphatic and broad strokes of Thomas Bradshaw's writing--is how strongly the acknowledgment of such a vast moral wrong can still impact them.

Photo/Ryan Jensen

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

As Isaiah (Peter McCabe) lies on his deathbed, his wife, Beth (Lia Aprile), hesitates before promising to free his slaves, and in that moment, we see the hopes of married houseslaves Benjamin (Erwin E. A. Thomas) and Charlotte (Sadrina Johnson) go up in smoke. It's 19th century Virginia, after all, and as Beth explains to her abolitionist brother-in-law, David (Jeff Biehl), "There is no good reason to squander such property," especially when it would be a cruelty to release them into the wild. No, not with "so many good masters to take care of them," an opinion seconded by Beth's pastor brother, John (Hugh Sinclair), who understands that "kindness ruins these animals." Such broad, boldly contrasting statements, all spoken without the shred of remorse or awareness, degrade not only Benjamin and Charlotte, but the audience, which suffers vicariously through them. Hypocracy triumphs, for promises are apparently made to be broken, and since God loves everyone and works in mysterious ways, it's alright for people to hate niggers and work in greedy, selfish ways. (How things have changed . . .)

What's more effective, though far from shocking, is the physicality of the show, which introduces a sort of subtle explicitness that is expertly handled by director Jose Zayas and actors Thomas and Johnson. It is not so much the injustice of Beth forcing Benjamin to betray his wife for the sake of her own sexual fantasies as it is the look in Benjamin's eyes as he tries to clench back emotion and preserve his dignity, only to be betrayed by his body. The nudity of the body is not what is graphic: the naked emotions are what burn.

In this case, Bradshaw's choice not to develop his tormentors works: we aren't meant to sympathize. We're meant to see black and white--literally--and to deal with the fact that this heap of cruelties were not only meaningless to the perpetrators, but everyday occurrences. They're all secretly evil, too: David marries Beth, but not to free her slaves. Instead, he uses the false promise of freedom to fuck Charlotte, and repays her by selling her to another plantation. Despite his own affair, he vows to castrate and bury Benjamin alive as retribution for Beth's use of him.

Most graphic of all, Southern Promises is funny, squirming an uncomfortable laugh to the surface. The sheer offensiveness of what these villains say and do would be overwhelming otherwise, and so when Benjamin makes his escape in a 4' X 3' box, he is of course dropped several times by clumsy porters. To console Benjamin after his wife is sold, he is given a turkey leg and three small pieces of cornbread, one of which John steals. And then there's plain hypocracy, as when John and David pray for Beth's "poor nigger child" . . . who they have just suffocated.

Save for one misstep in which Benjamin dreams of being the master (which tarnishes his suffering), Southern Promises is a fine work of evocative theater. That it is not harder to watch says something more about the audience than it does about the highly capable cast and crew, who have created a lingering mood that sends aftershocks long after the curtain call.

Southern Promises
(90 min., no intermission)
PS122 (150 First Avenue)

Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00

Performances (through 9/27): Mon. @ 7 | Wed.-Sat @ 8:30

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Chalk Boy

In a small town in Washington, the popular, not-so-smart Jeff Chalk has gone missing. Playwright Joshua Conkel keeps the action to a minimum, and focuses on the emotional journeys experienced. Despite the dramatic possibilities within some of the storylines, nothing comes to a head –- or feels all that dramatic.

Reviewed by Amanda Cooper

In the age of Gossip Girl, we are surrounded by microcosms of society being represented by high school. American teenage years can be a type of hyper-reality, with life’s dramas made into soap operas. Writing a play based around the lives of teens, then, is natural, and The Chalk Boy is just that.

In a small town in Washington, the popular, not-so-smart Jeff Chalk has gone missing. To narrate the days following his disappearance are Trisha and Lauren (Marguerite French and MaryCatherine Donnelly, respectively), two popular, perky girls from his school. Balancing out the cast are two not-so-popular girls who are best friends – Penny (Jennifer Harder), who had been semi-dating Jeff, and Breanna (Kate Huisentruit), who is infatuated with Penny.

At times the four briefly take on other personas, from parental figures to Jeff himself. The atmosphere is that of an earnest, mild mystery. Everyone's filled with a sugary energy, especially the popular girls, and even the two outcasts want to please – underneath their brooding, they care what we think.

Playwright Joshua Conkel keeps the action to a minimum, and focuses on the emotional journeys experienced while Jeff Chalk remains missing. However, despite the dramatic possibilities within some of the storylines, nothing comes to a head – or feels that dramatic. Though there are only four characters onstage, this two-act play doesn't actually explore the concepts and personas it puts forth. While Lauren and Trisha resort to religion, Breanna and Penny test their Wiccan potential. There's gossip and rumors, too - but all is dealt with flippantly.

The quartet of women don’t have much to work with, and so their performances lack consistency. This is underlined by the unsolved ending which, instead of feeling open-ended and true-to-reality, as Conkel clearly has attempted, feels unfinished and indecisive as it floats to its final scene.

Perhaps it's time to go back to 90210.

The Chalk Boy
At Under St. Marks
All tickets $18 or 212 868 4444
Through Sept 20th

Thursday, September 18, 2008

First Irish 2008: End of Lines

First Irish 2008’s showcase of short plays inspired by the New York City subway features something for all comers -- just like the city itself.


Not every play depicted in “End of Lines,” a collection of short plays by up and coming Irish playwrights, takes place near or even references the subway. Still, these snapshots of New York life, which run the gamut from sci-fi to Lifetime drama, display the sensitivity of the outsider without the obtuseness shown by many works about the city. We assign each play a borough, below:

”The Housekeeper” by Morna Regan
A recently laid off single mother (Paula Nance) takes up residence in someone else’s brownstone, with the rallying cry, “Maybe someone else should get a turn now.” When she meets its elderly society owner (Jacqueline Knapp), she discovers that with great wealth comes great baggage.
Borough: Staten Island, because the catalogue of misery multiplied by time becomes as repetitive and brutal as S.I. residents’ insistence that no one appreciates them enough. The creative misdirection of the play’s opening, in which Nance enters burdened with cleaning supplies as if she is back at her old job, devolves into a series of lines that never feel like honest dialogue. Thus the opportunity to interrogate genuine issues of class in the city, like the Staten Island Ferry, ultimately goes nowhere.
Directed by Fiana Toibin.

”Evangeline Elsewhere” by Pat Kinevane
An unknown woman (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) breaks the fourth wall to open up about her son, Evander, whom she nearly lost once after being attacked while pregnant on the 3 train. By turns gleeful and supplicating, her story is forced to confront a terrible truth about motherhood and safety.
Borough: Queens. Just like the construction that has plagued its main lines, “Evangeline Elsewhere” takes its sweet time to orient the audience to its protagonist’s particular brand of suffering. Still, the destination is worth it because of Hebert Gregory’s luminescent performance: The discrepancies between the snatches of stories Evangeline tells, like the patchwork of neighborhoods crossed by the F train, ultimately lead to a moment of grace when the emotional destination of the character is revealed. (But it should be noted, the 3 train does not go to Queens.)
Directed by David Sullivan.

”The Mission,” by Gary Duggan
A pair of prep school kids (Hal Fickett and Chris Henry) who claim to be looking for a drum’n’bass club accost a fellow subway passenger, Lucia (Brianne Berkson), while they wait for a late-night subway train. But are they cleverer than they look? And is their refrain, “We’re from outta town,” in fact a dangerous weapon?
Borough: The Bronx, where Lucia calls home and from whose reserves she draws when a routine ride takes a turn for the worse. Recasting a subway station -- with the edge of the stage doubling as the edge of the platform -- as a field of menace is a master stroke whose effectiveness, like the boys’, is easy to underestimate. Lucia passes by caricature without ever embodying it, and the final stroke she is charged with giving out doubles as a tri-state in-joke.
Directed by Alyse Rothman.

“Shaving The Pickle,” by Abbie Spallen
Sometime in the future, checkpoints fracture New York, Coney Island is a detention center and the 6 is the only train running. In the unbearable heat, a government worker named Don (Jerzy Gwiazdowski) takes pity on an older woman (Dori Legg) who is sharing his shelter, but the arrival of a battered former stripper (Molly Ward) threatens their
Borough: Manhattan, because it’s the territory most often destroyed on film (the 6 also appears in January’s monster movie “Cloverfield”) and structurally is the most classic work on view with three clearly defined acts. Don’s tragic flaw is allowing himself to take his eyes off procuring the means to escape, one glaringly obvious to the audience but out of his view. And the anachronistic touches here -- grammatically curious dialogue, ‘80s wardrobe -- mirror the ways the island gets comically lost in translation on the big screen.
Directed by Julia Gibson.

”The Parting Glass,” by Ursula Rani Sarma
Three brothers meet to fulfill a peculiar request in their father’s will and receive their inheritance. Compassionate Jimmy (Raymond James Hill), who has just returned from burying their father in Ireland, ambitious Michael (David Nelson), his features a whiplash of impatience, and the dreaming, imperiled Rory (Ryan King) convene for what could be the last time.
Borough: Brooklyn, because number 2 tries harder. This nearly note-perfect closer to the evening, the only one to directly reference Ireland and the Irish, never detours into stock earnestness about the meaning of brotherhood or any kind of Bono-scripted platitude about the relationship between the Emerald Isle and the Big Apple. The boys have assimilated with ease but, when forced to look back, find it means more to them than an empty gesture.
Directed by Portia Krieger.

“First Irish 2008: End of Lines” runs through Sept. 28 at 59E59 Theatres. For tickets and more information, visit

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Number

It's unfortunate that Clockwork Theatre's revival of Caryl Churchill's A Number lacks the Swiss precision required of this two-hander. The technical aspects (costume changes, accents, video projection) are emphasized more than the subtler humanity--this is a play about Identity--that make this such an important, and ultimately timeless, play.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Caryl Churchill's A Number is dismissively vague about its plot, its language is built to circumlocate the small scraps of detail the characters are dying for, and it runs under an hour. And yet, every minute is brilliant . . . or at least, it should be. But Clockwork Theatre's revival of this play lacks the necessary nuance, focusing more on the literal science than the literary humanity, and their production comes across as digital rather than analog and certainly far from Swiss in its precision. These short, sharp pinpricks of lines no longer muse on identity ("If that's me over there, who am I?"); instead, they are heavyhanded runs of emotionally dry dialogue.

In a series of five scenes, Salter (Sean Marrinan), a static presence ("If you'd tried harder, you'd have been different from what you were like, and you weren't, were you?") is confronted by three of his sons (all played by Jay Rohloff). There's Bernard 1, now forty years old, stunted, somewhat psychotically, in his childhood--his mother a deeply depressed and ultimately suicidal woman, and his father, Salter, an emotionally distant wreck with a drinking problem. Then there's Bernard 2, a thirty-five-year-old clone, meek and mild-mannered, who Salter had created in a selfish attempt to redeem himself for placing the original in childcare. At last, there's Michael Black, another clone from the same batch (one of 21), who, as a happy, well-adjusted model citizen, serves as the ultimate kick for nurture over nature: asked, at the end of the play, if he likes his life, he replies, simply, "I do, yes," and then jabs the knife in, "sorry."

For this neat trick to work, Salter needs to remain aloof, a blameless, emotionally distant man, and at the start, Marrinan seems to have that down: when Bernard 2 comes to him with the news, he is better at haggling about how much to sue for than actually comforting his son's concerns that he might not be the original: "Because I'm your father" has never seemed like such a weak excuse before. But when Bernard 1 enters, Marrinan breaks his stony facade, and comes off as a child himself, begging to be loved with big pants of hammy sorrow. This makes it harder for Rohloff, who ends up competing with Marrinan in each scene to show just how different he can be, and ultimately relying on superficial changes (like a cockney accent, or a threatening costume) to help him get his point across. Ultimately, these lines of both characters are taken at face value, with nothing invested underneath them: Bernard 1 is angry, sure, and justifably so, but he's never thirty-five-years-worth-of-stored-up-resentment frightening.

That inner machinery--the really complex ticking of the heart--is what's so sorely missing from this production of A Number. Beverly Brumm's direction, like Larry Laslo's boring set design, takes everything literally, and, along with the acting, flattens out the play, focusing on the science (there are projections of cell division between scenes) rather than on the characters. There are moments when all the gears and cogs spin in alignment, but only a number of them.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sa Ka La

In Jon Fosse's familial drama, a surprise party is ruined after the guest of honor suffers a crippling stroke . . . but that's not going to stop the family from complaining!

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Reviewed by Ilana Novick

Sa Ka La, written by Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse, involves a surprise party of the most disturbing kind. Henning and his sister-in-law’s husband, Johannes, are setting up for their mother-in-law’s sixtieth birthday and wondering why the guest of honor is late. The shared sideways glances and grimaces the brothers use in place of language speak volumes about their complicated relationship with “Mom” (Kathryn Kates). It’s awkward, but rings true. Miles away (i.e., the other side of the stage), Nora (Marielle Heller) sits at the edge of a hospital bed, watching her comatose mother, the victim of a sudden stroke.

The contrast between the wisecracking Henning and Johannes and the startled pain in Nora’s eyes is enough to instill the fear of karma in even the snarkiest audience members: it calls for at least a brief moratorium on gossip. Like a little girl again, the ever-devoted daughter Nora begs her mother to hang on just a little longer, at least until her sister and brother Hilde (Birgit Huppuch) and Ola (Noel Joseph Allain) arrive. Nora’s pleading makes us hope that this tragic event will reunite the estranged family, but as Hilde’s high heels stomp into the room, her lips pressed into an angry, thin line, her eyes narrowed in barely concealed rage, those hopes are dashed. In this family, Mom’s stroke only enhances their tensions: how dare she disrupt the party to lay on her deathbed?

Sa Ka La effectively explores uncomfortable truths about family and tragedy, but its power is decreased by the staging. Director Sarah Cameron Sunde handles the sudden shifts between settings by having half the cast freeze, but then has them move into new positions in the middle of another, unrelated, scene. It’s like watching a two-ring emotional circus, and it dilutes the power of both Johannes and Hennings’ bonding even as their siblings unravel in the hospital. Fosse deserves credit for treading difficult familial waters, but Sunde’s staging reduces the power of his efforts.

Sa Ka La (75 minutes, no intermission)
45 Bleecker Street.
Performances are September 6-27, 2008.
For more information and tickets visit

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Radiohole's latest piece, ANGER/NATION, literally goes balls out as it juxtaposes the life of the anti-drink anarchist, Carrie A. Nation, with the videos of occultist Kenneth Anger, the performance art of Eric Dyer, Scott Halvorsen Gillette, and Maggie Hoffman, and a sampled soundscape that vibrates through the free beer. Don't worry if you don't know any of those people: this show invents its own reality, so if you can let go, then go.

Photo/Paula Court

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Before there was the lipsticked bulldog, Sarah Palin, there was another god-inspired bulldog, the importantly self-named Carrie A. Nation, who saw herself as "a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn't like." She's just enough of a lunatic legend to fit the profile for the acclaimed but very experimental group Radiohole, who juxtapose this thoroughly old-fashioned anti-drink anarchist with their own ultrachic hedonistic aesthetic, placing her not at Jesus's feet, but at "de" base of Kenneth Anger's dated film clips (a nice mix, since he was heavy into sex and the occult).

ANGER/NATION is performance art, meant to be actively experienced, which makes it difficult to talk specifically about the show. A hatchet is used, and not symbolically, as are two highly pressurized air rifles (though in this case, due to the high levels of pain, hopefully symbolically); Caesar makes a drunken appearance, as does a boobied President Taft: these should give you some idea of the ideas floating around Eric Dyer, Scott Halvorsen Gillette, and Maggie Hoffman's heads (and, I hope, within the latter's very pregnant belly). Between snippets of quoted text from Nation (Hoffman), who vampirishly drips blood from her lips, and contemporary dissonance from, say Karl Rove, samplings of sound swell through the theater, daringly loud, and Dyer and Gillette perform ritualized movements that extend well beyond comedy or drama.

They're also, at times, well beyond common sense, but this can be a very liberating thing: as freeing in one-dimension as Carrie believed her bar-smashing to be in another (releasing the souls of those poor drunkards from their addiction). It's hard to imagine what a Radiohole afterparty might be like: the audience is plied with booze from an onstage keg from the getgo, and both Dyer and Gillette (along with Iver Findlay) chug recognizable beers and oddly colored shots throughout the performance. ANGER/NATION feels like stumbling into the basement of a club, bass music still vibrating through the walls and seats, just in time to overhear the deep and drunken ramblings of the select few who truly believe they can alter reality.

Radiohole is a ballsy group (Gillette takes this literally), and their work is so original that it may be discomforting to those who have worked so hard to think inside a black box. Ironically, the calm anticlimax of the show (Zen Buddhism is referenced) is what actually made audience members walk out: no-one likes to hang out and cuddle after a good mindfuck. But every now and again, it's worth having your mind blown.

ANGER/NATION (60+ min., no intermission)
The Kitchen (512 West 19th Street)
Tickets (212-255-5793 x11): $15.00
Performances (through 9/27): Thurs. - Sat. @ 8 (and 9/24 @ 8)

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Oh What War

Despite excising the "lovely" bit from Joan Littlewood's 1963 Oh What a Lovely War, which inspired Jason Craig's latest mash-up, Peter Ksander's aesthetic design, Lisa Dove's quiet yet powerful rearrangements of WW1 standards, and Mallory Catlett's firm direction keep this production looking just fine. The rest is tangled, and increasingly muddled, working through Brechtian alientation, Craig's own fragmented poetics, and homages to the Marx Brothers and the Dadist Cabaret Voltaire, but fascinating all the same.

Photo/Ryan Jensen

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

A twitch at first, and then a knotted-up tremor ripples across the face of Bunnich (Magin Schantz), a victim not only of the war she's fled but to the memories she's lost while submerged deep in the metaphoric hole of her new world. As she attempts to stomp out a stable rhythm, supported by her friends, a ragtag and anonymous group of deserters, she half-whispers a song, leaving out two simple words from J. P. Long's 1917 original: just like that, Joan Littlewood's 1963 play Oh What a Lovely War becomes Jason Craig's 2008 Oh What War, and while the clownish satire, the Brechtian juxtaposition of songs, and the projection of violent imagery remain, what a difference those missing words make.

There's been some scavenging to be sure, but in line with the mission statement of Juggernaut Theatre Company, everything old is new again: there's Lisa Dove quietly rearranging old songs so that they maintain their standard meter and style, but with added complexities and anguish; there's Peter Ksander, rigging a projector above a kid-sized pool of mud, so that the white-hot images of soldiers can ripple through it; there's Craig's complexly beautiful language ("I stared at the pea having just tickled me through and through / And then I screamed / And screaming brought rust blood / Six holes shooting streaming / I became my own comic relief as I imagined spinning and spraying like a sprinkler"). You can cite the Dada of Cabaret Voltaire all you like in the estranging vignettes of the so-called "Deserters," or the influence of the Marx Brothers during a privateering session ("There's not much business in stale, still peace"), but there's hardly a stale moment.

To that end, credit Mallory Catlett, who, as a long-time director of Craig's work, like The Fall and Rise of the Rising Fallen, can maintain his frenetic energy even when it is confined within a more dramatic, difficult, and down-tempo production. There is stage magic in the blurring radio remixes from G. Lucas Crane set to the trench crawling of shadowy figures who brush the ceiling, and in dances set in the mud and songs gasped through a cloud billowing smoke (hold the mustard). Her work with the cast is meticulous, too: Merz (Scott Sowers) alternates between Polish, German, Italian, and French (at least), an Everyman amalgamate that singlehandledly illustrates the underlying humanity (and comic timing) of every soldier, but he comes across so clearly that translations would be superfluous. Hennings (Kelli Rae Powell), a droll and melancholy host ("I created this lazy lethargy by lulling these fine foreign fools into this muddy boudoir"), seems a complete character after a single introductory monologue.

However, things start to get muddier toward the end of the play. Craig catches himself growing a bit repetitious, and so he switches from his nonlinear snippets into a cramped cabaret conclusion, and then pushes politics too hard with the ghostly image of the innocent Poster Boy (a talking head if there ever were one), a sort of exquisite corpse of the surgeon's design, turning on his creators, demanding that we look at what we have wrought. By turning away from the tremulous language and potent stories (Bunnich recounts a collection of bottles she found on the battlefield, each with a tooth and a dated paper with the word "sorry") and instead turning the bright lights on the audience, Oh What War flares out of focus.

In one of the earliest, and strongest scenes, Bunnich and Flooze (Jessica Jelliffe) present a slideshow on World War I, focusing on the comic doings of the Black Hand Gang. "They showed them," one will say, "Showed them what?" replies the other. In the words of one of those old-timey melodies, appropriated by (and appropriate to) the play, "Who could ask for anything more?" Because we can't explain war: we can only look at interpretations of it.

Oh What War (90min; no intermission)
HERE Arts Center (145 Sixth Avenue)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00
Performances (through 10/4): Wed. - Sat. @ 7:30 (9/23 @ 7:30 instead of 9/27 @ 7:30)

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Invitation (Ellen's Review)

In “The Invitation” it’s the hosts -- and we -- who overstay our welcome.


Everyone’s got a friend like Marian, the sharp-tongued shrew who dominates the first half of Brian Parks’ play “The Invitation,” a world premiere from Word Monger Productions. Shouting and shrill from almost the very moment we meet her, Marian (played to perfection by Katie Honaker) has no problem voicing opinions for which “contrarian” is not quite strong enough a word, like “Retarded people are depressing” and “What’s to see in South America?” The dinner party she and meek husband Dave (David Calvitto) are hosting is ostensibly in honor of their friend Steph (Leslie Farrell), but everyone pays attention to Marian -- at first attempting to debate her, and then letting an awkward silence fall after her jabs at vegetarians and volunteer work. Yet when later one character tells another, “She wasn’t always like that,” it has the ring of truth: No one wants to believe all along he has been friends with a sexist classist racist.

But the George-and-Martha relation between Dave and Marian can only go so far, especially when she turns to attacking his book which has been turned down by the publisher where he works. (“Apparently novels are supposed to be entertaining,” she sniffs in one of many, many roarers delivered by Honaker and others.) About the specifics of the shift we will only say, the gun on the mantelpiece is a literary reference dropped amid the crossfire of wits early in the show, and is developed with gore to spare.) The place where it lands is where “The Invitation” takes a turn into outright unpleasantness in the “Funny Games” mode, in which we are asked to question whether we were tolerating the torture of the people onstage to the point where one is pressed to action. But this turn of events dehumanizes Dave in order to justify what has just happened, and director John Clancy allows Calvitto to unleash his inner Joker a little too much. Still, even with the coda, which is complete nonsense, “The Invitation” is a funny, nasty little piece of work.

”The Invitation,” which also stars Paul Urcioli and Eva van Dok, runs through Sept. 27 at the Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster Street. For tickets and more information, visit

The Invitation (Aaron's Review)

The Invitation is so well-cooked that the roars of laughter threaten to drown out the subtler points Brian Parks is making with his hyperactive style. As a social satire of the rich, Parks strips his characters down to five very similar blanks and stuffs them full of the fattiest (in a foie gras way) text, then watches as John Clancy amps up the violence and the speed, a gore- and gorge-fest on one very sharp skewer.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

If Harold Pinter is known for his pregnant pauses, then Brian Parks must be lauded for aborting his, for he's a playwright who skewers social boundaries at supersonic speeds. Think, if you must, of an unhinged Tracy Letts. The Invitation, his latest, starts with a wickedly smart dinner party that quickly sets up its credentials by namedropping Tchaikovsky and having a Bard-off over Troilus and Cressida, and then sets about using all that pointless albeit hyper-intelligent chatter ("Does gossip count as thought?") to expose the impotency of the currency culture, the inadequacy and secret unhappiness of the superrich, for whom grand twelfth-floor views are just as easily prisons as prizes.

Case in point, Marian (Katie Honaker), a hideously offensive social dominatrix, putting others down for the sheer sport of it: as her bitter husband David (David Calvitto) puts it, "Marian's imagination is a bit fertile these days -- from the long period of money raining down on her." She's the sort of person who apologizes for using the word "retard" only because she can use "mongoloid" instead, or wittily coin a new one, like "neo-cretinism." She's an unfettered id, and because Parks is operating a notch away from absurdism, she's able to get away with murder, hitting shock value lines like "Steer clear of menorahs, though -- you never know when someone's going to come along and wipe out the Jews, destroying your resale market" far better (and more originally) than anything LaBute could think of.

It's no surprise, then, that David does at last turn to murder: "At what point in this world of ours, riddled with its pestilence and famine, its fly-covered oprhans and melting ice-caps -- at some point in this God-abandoned vat of suffering and cruelty the self-satisfaction of the Western World becomes a capital crime!" John Clancy is ready and willing to take the leap with Parks: he coats the entire cast (or what remains of it) in blood, and then proceeds to build and build from there, along with the help of the indefatiguable Calvitto, who chews through lines with such savage enjoyment that we'd be happy just to have the scraps of a good play.

Instead, we get a full serving of meat, though to be fair to the one-dimensional characters, most of it is fat. Delicious, chewy, absolutely unhealthy fat, and it's a credit to the entire cast that the arteries of the show never get clogged down any of that. It's hard to mock the shallowness of a culture without getting absorbed by it, but Parks stacks his deck with the always-trump power of original one-liners: "I'll take the First Folio over the Bible any day -- Shakespeare's jokes are intentional." Furthermore, by establishing the similarity of all five characters (Leslie Farrell, Paul Urcioli, and Eva van Dok round things out) in the jocular appetizer to this play, he's able to dole out a lot of "rich" observations about this social strata, from faith to law to culture to politics.

If you enjoy theme-park rides and uncontrollable laughter, you'd better RSVP now.

The Invitation (1hr 20min, no intermission)
Ohio Theater (66 Wooster Street)

Tickets (212-868-4444): $18.00

Performances (through 9/27): Wed. - Sat. @ 8

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Elizabeth Rex

The costumes rule the kingdom in Nicu’s Spoon’s production of Elizabeth Rex, remounted for a four-week run at Off-Broadway’s Center Stage. It’s as though the production budget went entirely into costume designer Rien Schlecht’s pockets, and she has used it well, turning a play about power, gender, and performance into a play about clothes, which is to say she found a clarifying outlet for the whirling themes of the late Timothy Findley’s play. Add a pair of virtuosic performers to inhabit the two leads, and all that the rest of the company needs to do—along with the drab, hastily painted set—is stay out of the way.

Reviewed by Jason Fitzgerald

Elizabeth Rex imagines an evening—specifically, February 25th, 1601—when Elizabeth I chooses to wait out the execution of her lover, the treasonous Robert Devereux, in a barn inhabited by Shakespeare’s players. There, amidst the fracas of a company celebrating a performance of Much Ado About Nothing, she meets Ned Lowenscroft: sodomite, diva (he played Beatrice), and slowly fading victim of an unnamed venereal disease. After trading insults and wits, Elizabeth (Stephanie Barton-Farcas) and Lowenscroft (Michael DiGioia) strike a deal—he will teach the queen how to be a woman (and so grieve for Devereux), and she will teach Ned how to be a man (and so face death with dignity). They spend the rest of the play squirming toward their catharses.

Rather than dodge the gay-man-with-AIDS stereotype on which Ned is clearly based— anachronistic to the 17th century and outdated for the 21st—DiGioia reveals its enduring power. He earns the audience’s admiration for committing to the fey but lion-hearted victim who does not so much rage as swat against the dying of the light. Barton-Farcas doesn’t quite share DiGioia’s subtleties, and her preoccupation with the monarch’s accent and clipped tone makes it hard to catch her words, but she commands the stage and, with a glare that threatens to burn the barn down, earns the respect of her subjects on and off the set.

And yet—the production is really about the clothes. After a brief prologue delivered by an aging Will Shakespeare, the evening begins with a rush of gowns, hairpieces, bodices, stockings, tunics, bells, funny hats, and banners hastily removed and tossed about by actors. The unimpressive set, a mix of hastily painted grays, wood-colored wall posts, and chairs and tables that could have come from any theater’s prop closet, only focuses our attention onto the costume design, revealing an added layer to the power struggle between Ned and Elizabeth. That their costumes (the manly crown, the womanly garments) have taken their hearts captive is their power and their tragedy—for Ned, the power to speak freely to the queen and the cruelty of his slow death; for Elizabeth, the power to rule England and the resulting tragedy of sending her “Robin” to the ax.

While the rest of the actors easily shed their outer layers for plain white shirts, the two leads are more hesitant to remove their coverings. It is some time before we see Ned without his make-up (his open sores the only cosmetic he cannot remove), and even longer for Elizabeth to change into a less ostentatious outfit and—a theatrical triumph—to remove her wig. It doesn’t take a queen—or an actor—to empathize with their resistance to let go of surface identities and face the more complicated, and more fragile, truths within.

There’s little to say for the rest of the characters, or for the actors who—competently but not expertly directed—fade into the background with the set. The dying Shakespeare of the play’s outer frame seems more drunk than feeble, leaving a major aspect of Findley’s play—the recovery of the playwright’s memory and the closet-like pain of the secrets he’s kept—mostly unnoticed. Sammy Mena plays Ned’s pet bear with a dedication that underscores the humiliation of the task, especially since playing the creature sans costume makes no sense in a production so otherwise aware of its surfaces. What remains is essentially a two-character drama, a kaleidoscope of colors and fabrics, and a fine introduction to a lesser-known work.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


This crude, shallowly imagined, frantically leaping, childishly portrayed new play of Edith Freni's is, without a doubt, Kidstuff. There's the rare sense of depth, buried deep down in Sarah Nina Hayon's quick retorts and self-denigrating attitude, but for the most part the play is too flat to even pretend that it's good.

Photo/Ryan Jensen

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

There's a little too much Kidstuff in Edith Freni's latest show. What starts as a lost soul's last chance--Eve (Sarah Nina Hayon) runs into her first love, Chet (Justin Blanchard) for a fifteen-year overdue reckoning--quickly turns into a bad comedy routine as her therapist, Lou (Peter O'Connor), has her fellow group members act out their interpretations of her unresolved conflict (Chet's affair). There are a few glimpses of depth, as Sarah (Sharon Freedman) co-opts Eve's story to work out her frustrated relationship with fellow patients Dave (Vincent Madero) and the diva-like Jemma (Cynthia Sylvia), but these are quickly flattened out by absurd actions (a fixation on cake); poor, overly coy dialogue ("Kindly remove your face from my face, please"); and a series of characters who are either crude (like a stereotypically Jewish shopkeeper and morally authoritative priest) or unexplainably shallow (like Eve's angry brother and carefree father).

Such exaggerated caricatures and situations make it hard to ever see Eve as a real person, even though Ms. Hayon does her best to remain level-headed. And there's something to the pace of the play, the way Erica Gould smoothly transitions between the last three months of Eve's life, that does, at times, get across the idea of a woman struggling to stay afloat in a distant and barely comprehensible world. But while Eve may be stuck in the past, rudderless, it makes little sense for the characters around her to be just as childish and lost: Lou abruptly demands that Eve beg him for help, Dave has a desire to play one of the female parts in their reinterpretations of Eve's past, and for some reason, a fourth "actor" is called in to provide another viewpoint for the group sessions--he doesn't, just like these moments utterly fail to shed any light on Eve's life. Even the play's ending is unnecessarily vague: after all that unrelated chaos, it turns out that Eve's had the solidity she craves--a sense of purpose and belonging--all along?

Partial Comfort Productions often end up as exaggerated urban tales, but they've never been so grossly comic, never so unfocused. The seams of this world's makebelieve are too visible, hastily stitched into an hour-long sketch, and they leave the audience with nothing to invest in. It also leaves us unable to even pretend that Kidstuff is a good play.

Kidstuff (1hr; no intermission)
Kirk Theater: Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $18.00
Performances (through 9/27): Wed. - Sat. @ 8

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

King of Shadows

King of Shadows leaves us grasping at thin air when, after a promising opening, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa starts to lose himself in an overcooked and fantastical plot. The play has some fine moments (particularly from Sarah Lords, who plays an unhappy teen) all the way through, but by keeping the evil offstage, his magical realism lacks any bite.

Photo/Carel DiGrappa

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

You can tell by the sharply polished dialogue of King of Shadows that Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's written comic books. His presentational dialogue and narrative asides are a nice fit for the solid lines of a comic's colorful paneling, and his small talk expertly drives the action forward. ("What kind of noises?" "I don't know--voices." "Suspicious voices?" "Yeah, sure. Loud, suspicious voices.") Even his setting is comic book-like: no one is every truly "dead" (or even really in danger), for while there may be evil, it's always veiled by the safety of words. The fantasy novels he's been influenced by are far from dark (or deep: sorry Shakespeare), and that leaves his hint of magical realism without any bite.

But what audiences can't tell, at first, is where King of Shadows is going, and that's because Aguirre-Sacasa's voice is at least fresh and original. As he builds his world, the show zips by, emitting an emphatically youthful sound. But his material ages quickly, and by the end of the first act, it is overwrought and laborious. Although Connie Grappo's direction valiantly races to beat this doomsday clock (aided by Wilson Chin's quick and tightly streamlined fold-out alleyway of a set), the intermission--which has us mull over the contradictory characters and overcooked plot--sort of kills it.

But things start well, as Jessica (Kat Foster) a naive do-gooder (somewhat redundant, given our selfish culture) tries to use the settlement money from her parents' tragic death to pay things forward to a capital-C Community, her dissertation's "Disenfranchised, At-risk, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Cross-gendered, and Questioning Homeless Youth in the Metropolitan Bay Area." Her latest subject is a boy named Nihar (Satya Bhabha), who we're meant to think is a homeless, meth-using male prostitute only because he prefers the terms "sucking cock" and "getting reamed" to Jessica's prettified "survival sex" terminology. (This is the first of many contradictions: from the way Emily Pepper puts trendy holes in his costume to the housefly-like attitude of Bhabha, he's really just a loveable scamp.) Drawn to his tale of a victimizing "King of Shadows," Jessica offers him sanctuary for two days, despite her cop boyfriend Eric's (Richard Short) warnings and her overprotective feelings for her fifteen-year-old sister, Sarah (an atittudinal Sarah Lord, who steals every scene).

At this point, Aguirre-Sacasa runs out of steam (perhaps he moonlights as the smoke machine) and just starts making things up. Sarah and Nihar, both gay, hook up and plan to run away and Eric, of the flimsy, paragraph-long backstory, is dumped by Jessica shortly after he blurts out a confession of love. Fantasy or not, there isn't a compelling reason for any one of these things to happen, and these stubborn traits read more as plot devices than the elements of character. Worse, Aguirre-Sacasa treats the characters just like Jessica unwittingly treats her sister--"the easiest thing not to deal with"--when he focuses on an easy, fantastical conclusion instead.

"Let me touch something," Jessica says, "a real thing--let me hold it, feel its weight, in my hands; let it live in my mind, in my heart--and I come up...woefully inadequate." Things aren't quite so bad for the playwright, but whether or not he wants to focus on the real world--there are some very bright moments there between the two sisters and the two children--he needs to add an element of danger to the show, something that reminds us it's not just a fairy tale.

King of Shadows
(1hr 45min; 1 intermission)
Theater for the New City (155 First Avenue)

Tickets (212-868-4444): $25.00

Performances (through 9/28): Tues. - Sat. @ 8 | Sat. @ 2 | Sun. @ 7

Monday, September 08, 2008

La Vigilia (The Vigil)

Love and duplicity are in the air when a shady stranger convinces a man in love with his employer to let him assist in capturing her heart. Although this show is romantic and has good dialogue and performances, the road to romance doesn't always make sense and the decor and sound effects don't make the grade.

Michael Black and Elka Rodriguez

Photo/Vincent Marano

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Many eastern churches prepare for Christmas day with a vigil that in the form of a mass or feast. In Vincent Marano's La Vigilia (The Vigil), noblewoman La Signora Avare (Victoria Bundonis) whips up a meal, but she forgoes waiting for Jesus in order to watch for the husband that abandoned her 20 years ago. Set in Florence (Firenze, to be exact), Italy, La Vigilia is a fable that has almost all of the ingredients to be successful: a romantic setting; a woman mourning her marriage; a servant, Onesto (Ridley Parson), long suffering in love and waiting to pick up the pieces; Ferra (Elka Rodriguez), a vivacious and impassioned woman anxious to soothe his aches; Zlo (Michael Black), a bumbling idiot that provides comic relief; and Sagesto (James Michael Armstrong), a wily, irresponsible vagrant who guarantees that posing as La Signora's husband will solve everyone's problems. What’s missing is a sense of logic in the plot or in the set pieces and sound effects meant to carry the audience to Italy.

In this production of La Vigilia, “Italy” consists of large, white background panels by Gabriella Willenz and Ien DeNio with illustrations of residents and buildings drawn on them. Although the pretty art looks good enough for a gallery, it's far from transportive. DeNio's sound effects, meant to evoke the buzz of townspeople at the market, sound more like the annoying buzz of flies. Luckily, there are other things to see and hear that are entertaining.

Marano's script is full of wise musings on love, snappy dialogue, and even some halfway raunchy lines that, in the mouths of this talented cast and under Kathleen O’Neill’s precise direction, aren't the least disconcerting. One bit that stands out is the interchanging of the term “boning” between two people and the “boning” of fish. The play on words is a stretch since the correct term is “deboning” for the fish, but because of the cultural differences, it's close enough to get a bunch of laughs. However, while the audience is enchanted by Bundonis' grace and Rodriguez' fiery but over-the-top performance, the outcomes surrounding the love rectangle are not realized in the most sensible way. Plus, any explanation as to how one person falls in love with the other gets glossed over. The ending, punctuated with unanswered questions, is also unsatisfying.

La Vigilia, produced jointly by Boo-Arts and Teatro Oscuro, is a fun and lighthearted comedy with a lot of good elements for success: witty dialogue, great actors, and romance. But not even the whirlwind of romance is strong enough to distract from the holes in the plot and the aesthetics. Until those things are addressed, perhaps we ought to hold a vigil for La Vigilia, waiting, in other words, for an even greater magic.

La Vigilia (The Vigil) (90 minutes, no intermission)
Manhattan Theatre Source (177 MacDougal Street)
Tickets: $18. Reservations: (212) 501-4751
September 3 - 20, 2008Wed - Sat at 8pm

Thursday, September 04, 2008

A Perfect Ganesh

Workshop Theater's production of A Perfect Ganesh comes across as a thrift-store version of Terrance McNally's tale of self-discovery in India: experiences are often reduced to tacky, comic statements and all the vibrant exotic color is often reduced to a bland commercial hue. However, Peter Sylvester's direction, while slow, is actually suited to some of the self-satirical cultural tones, and the two leads, Charlotte Hampden and Ellen Barry, are bright enough spots that, every now and then, we can live vicariously through them.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Workshop Theater's revival of Terrance McNally's A Perfect Ganesh doesn't need a muse of fire--the words are there, after all--but it could use a few more sparks to better kindle the genuine warmth flowing out of Katharine "Kitty" Brynne (Ellen Barry). No more aesthetics are needed: Kitty and Margaret Civil (Charlotte Hampden) are two quite ordinary friends with quiet mundane problems, and by keeping us focused on their reactions--the ways in which they change (or don't)--Peter Sylvester's basic staging benefits the play. After all, though there's one moment of catharsis beside the Ganges, the majority of revelations in this play are often subtle and internal.

But this is where that perfect energy is disrupted: while Hampden is able to get beyond a one-dimensional bitter civility, C. K. Allen and Gary Mahmoud often get bogged down in their accents, losing their characters to a repetitive series of mannerisms or loose comedy. It's not so much a problem for Mahmoud's Ganesha, who, as a monologuing narrator, doesn't hurt anyone by being a bland deity, but when he shuffles across the stage trying to be a petite, kimonoed Japanese woman, it's hard to see how Margaret can open up to that. Likewise for Mr. Allen, who takes the cultural punch out of the serving class characters he portrays: all those bitter anti-American feelings, which ought to be even more prescient today, come across as cheap, and easily dismissed, jokes. More importantly, Allen plays two gay men: one, the ghost of Kitty's dead, gay-bashed son, and two, a sick but optimistic man who has come, with his lover, to India--not expecting to be healed, but so as to really live. These roles are critical, as they give Kitty a chance to release the past and embrace the future, but Allen only hints at the deeper emotions beneath those feverish facades.

Luckily, the two female leads are very strong, and if the emphasis ends up on their own fractured friendship (it's astonishing how little we often know about our "closest" friends), so be it: secrets and confrontations make for good drama, too. They don't, however, hold our attention for the close-to-three-hours scope of A Perfect Ganesh: hopefully Sylvester will pick up the pace, even if he never manages to really fire things up.

A Perfect Ganesh (2hr 45min, 1 intermission)
Workshop Theater (312 West 36th Street)
Tickets: $18.00 (212-695-4173 x5#)
Performances (through 9/13): Wed. - Sat. @ 8:00 | 9/6 & 9/7 @ 3