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.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Dawn

Thomas Bradshaw's latest play, Dawn, is a challenging play. It's not subtle--his dialogue bashes us over the head with its gross exaggerations, and director Jim Simpson works with an empty stage so as to keep things transparent and obvious. However, by setting up his characters to fall--likeable alcoholics, intolerable saviors, abused annoyers--the play challenges our expectations, and aims to make our morals a little more fluid.  

Photo/Joan Marcus

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Taken at face value, Dawn, like many of Thomas Bradshaw’s plays, is hard to digest: aside from shocking us with gratuitously long scenes of debasement, be it alcoholic or both pedophilic and incestuous, what is the play about? It must be about something: after all, religion is thrown around, as is morality. But at the end of the day, or from the beginning of Dawn, isn’t this grasping for meaning exactly what it’s all about? Bradshaw, assisted here by Jim Simpson’s exaggeratedly comic and set-less transparency, defies expectations so as to make the audience question their own ingrained assumptions.

At face value, Hampton (Gerry Bamman) is a sad clown with a violent streak. Why should anyone empathize with a man who greets his wife, Susan (Irene Walsh), in a drunken stupor, urinates in their bed, and grows violent when called on it? And yet, after watching Hampton spend five minutes hiding liquor around the bare stage (under the radiator, in a gallon jug of water, beside the audience), his desperation grows endearing. Even Bamman is exceedingly likeable, one of those upright father figures from a family sitcom, caught here after-hours. It’s all a play against type, with Bradshaw manipulating the arguments—as when his son, Steven (Drew Hildebrand), convinces him to go to AA, or when his daughter, Laura (Kate Benson), unleashes her bottled-up fury at him—so that Hampton is always likeable, so that, despite almost killing his first wife, Nancy (Laura Esterman), we can’t pass judgment on him.

As Hampton begins to atone for his sins, Bradshaw moves on to a more difficult subject, and sets about dismantling our expectations of Steven, who we are meant to like. As it turns out, however, he lusts for his 14-year-old niece, Crissy (Jenny Seastone Stern): the laundry he does so charitably for Laura is really just an excuse for him to masturbate with a pair of Crissy’s panties over his face, and another down his pants. Does it lessen the blow at all to find that Crissy has already been earning cash by streaming amateur porn? Or that Steven may actually be in love with Crissy, and vice-versa?

It’s no accident that Hampton chants the same prayer at the start and end of the play—“Teach us the eternal rituals of suffering!” All the things that happen in Dawn happen in the same world, with our morality becoming quicksilver in the scorching light of Bradshaw’s drama. That Hampton refuses to turn his son in could just as easily be the thing that finally reunites his family as it is the thing that ultimately destroys it. It is not about judging these characters so much as it is about understanding them, and in that depth, knowing that we are all connected, as much in our sorrows as in our joys.

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Dawn (90 min., no intermission)
The Flea (41 White Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00
Performances (through 12/6): See
website for details

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Zero

Zero is a portrait of aimless twenty-something men struggling with broken dreams, unable to let go of the crushes and grudges they've carried since high school. Despite an energetic lead, the production and the plot fail to move beyond the limited ambitions of the characters.

Photo/Nan Coulter

Reviewed by Ilana Novick

It’s another morning in the life of Leonard (Danny O’Connor, who wrote and performs Zero), a failed actor who has spent the last eight years since high school living from one hangover to the next. O’Connor is cringe-inducingly familiar as this young, wasted man: he jolts awake, grabs his water bottle like a life raft, stumbles from his crumpled bed to the bathroom, and after revisiting last night’s bad decisions, prepares for a reunion with his high school friends. Time has passed, and emotions have changed, but neither Leonard, Alex (a recent Iraq veteran), nor Sam (whose holy trinity is babes, beer, and brawling) have gotten over who they were in high school, nor have they reconciled what they hoped to be with the aimless twenty-somethings they’ve become.

O’Connor’s expressive shoulders allow him to move between characters. Alex keeps his in a state of high-shrug tension, as if always on guard for the enemy, Leonard is terminally slumped, and Sam struts around, chest forward, like a barroom peacock, ready to hit on any woman in his line of vision. But while the characters change, the conversations all revolve around how hot high school’s Mindy McPhee was, and the touching but sadly out of place story about how Alex killed people in Iraq. These transitions are jarring, especially as Alex, after all he’s been through, is still fixated enough on Mindy to be angry at Leonard for sleeping with her years later. Of course old grudges die hard, but better plays have been made about how war changes priorities instead of enforcing old, pathetic ones.

O’Connor gamely keeps up his energy enough as he switches between characters, and that's admirable, but time and again, he runs out of shoulder positions and vocal shifts and seems to be playing one man with multiple personalities, rather than fully developed, separate characters. Alone, and with a limited set, O’Connor (despite his expansive frame and expressive demeanor), can’t quite transition from bar to bedroom to airport. He moves quickly enough between Alex, Sam, and Leonard, but when he adds in monologues from two minor characters, they drag. There’s little that connects Gabe, a formerly overweight and underappreciated man who seems hellbent on compensating for his lonely teen years, or James, an artistic loner jealous of Gabe’s reinvention, to the main plot. In the end, despite well-observed characters, and the wincing humor of lines like “I’d like to MySpace all over her Facebook,” Zero’s plot is as aimless as its characters.

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Zero (2 Hours, 1 intermission)
Roy Arias Theater 2 (619 9th Avenue)
Tickets available at theatermania.com, or by calling 866-811-4111 ($17)
Performances Nov 13-December 22, 2008, Monday-Tuesday and Thursday-Saturday at 8:15pm.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Hillary: A Modern Greek Tragedy With a (Somewhat) Happy Ending

If you think about it--not a lot, but a little--Hillary Rodham Clinton's life somewhat resembles a Greek tragedy, in which she is undone by the very things she has built her life around: a character forged in the harsh fires of a "man's" world, a love that turns in and bites itself, a necessary ambition that others can't stand . . . and of course, the war between her patron, Athena, and a jealous Aphrodite. Wendy Weiner's clever cobbling of Greek mythos and modern day mayhem, and director Julie Kramer's sacrifice of seriousness help Mia Barrow's Hillary to deliver a heartfelt gift from the gods.

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The smartest thing about recasting a familiar tale in ancient Greek terms is that it takes the need for surprise off the table. After all, like any classic tragedy, we already know what happened to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who tabled her Athena-inspired ambitions for 18 Arkansan years for the sake of an Aphrodite-sent Bill Clinton. We’ve seen her classic flaw come to the forefront not just in her uncompromising health care push in ’94 or Lewinski-blind devotion in the ’98 impeachment, but most recently in her cold ’08 campaign. It’s a relief, then, to see Wendy Weiner’s Hillary: A Modern Greek Tragedy With a (Somewhat) Happy Ending dispense with those circumstances and proceed with the comedy. After all, as many myths acknowledge, it’s not about the doing of the task itself so much as the lesson learned (or in this case, the laughs earned).

Of course, Greek mythology is a double-edged sword: it is by all means a gimmick, Chorus and all, and director Julie Kramer is constantly struggling to keep the jokes clever without coming across as slight. This is somewhat accomplished by allowing things to be campy: Lauren Helpern’s set is a flimsy mock-up of marble stadium steps, with two symmetric dresser-type shrines to Aphrodite and Athena. This also allows for some looser, SNL-like impersonations of Kenneth Starr and Monica Lewinsky, not to mention Mia Barron’s Hillary and Darren Pettie’s Bill. With seriousness sacrificed on the altar, Hillary manages to give audiences exactly what they expect: a mock history lesson.

This is where Weiner’s cleverness pays off: Bill is cast as Achilles—you can guess which part of his body his mother failed to dip into the sacred springs. The path to the underworld is, of course, in Newt Gingrich’s cellar. When on trial for perjury, Bill opens a McPandora’s Box that gets him waffling on what the meaning of “is” is. And Bill’s saxophone doubles as Orpheus’s lyre, just when all hope appears to be lost. And that’s just the farfetched part: it’s not such a stretch to imagine Athena as Hillary’s campaign manager, given the potential fallibility of gods and pollsters alike. Weiner has also liberally cribbed from existing speeches to cast the same old lines in a whole new light: after Gennifer Flowers, Hillary is able to say “I’m not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette” because—at her request—Athena has just used ravens (off-duty from Prometheus, one assumes) to peck out half her heart.

There’s also a deeper humanity to the show, thanks to Barron’s portrayal of Hillary, from a little girl, crushed at the prospect of never being able to be an astronaut, to a hyperactive debate champion in high school, a studious speaker at her Wellesley college graduation, a love-struck post-graduate, a patronizing politician introducing health care legislation, all the way to the Hillary we know and love and hate today. Bill is a real tool (literally, he’s Aphrodite’s pawn, and Pettie has fun with those faults, given that the show isn’t about him) and Hillary is far from an accurate biography of the New York senator, but that this comic modernization of a rather considerable mythos manages to be heartfelt at all is a gift from the gods.

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Hillary (95 minutes, no intermission)
New Georges @ The Living Theater (21 Clinton Street)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $20.00
Performances (through 12/20): Wed. - Mon. @ 8:00

Monday, November 24, 2008

Catch-22

It's no surprise to find a company trying to adapt Catch-22: the Iraq War--for all its paradoxes (e.g., fighting for peace), selfish capitalism, and military glory at the expense of individual rights--might as well be a sequel to Joseph Heller's brilliant novel. What's surprising is that Aquila Theatre Company is crazy enough to pull it off, thanks to the theatrical sense of its straightjacketed director, Peter Meinecke, a talented, triple-cast (or more) ensemble, and a solid lead, John Lavelle, who can be both sane and insane.

Photo/Richard Termine

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

"I can't marry you," says Luciana, a prostitute in Rome, "because you're crazy. You're crazy," she continues, "because you want to marry me." This is just one of the many roundabouts in Joseph Heller's Catch-22, a brilliant anti-war novel that uses a comic tone to expose the paradoxes of fighting for peace, the logical need for war in a capitalist society, and the conflict between the individual and the country. Given those unfortunately timeless themes, it’s no surprise to see Aquila Theatre mounting a new adaptation of the book, nor is it surprising to see them attempting to stage a book which, like Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, wildly leaps from location to location, time to time. (Heller attempted this play in 1971; Mike Nichols made a film version in 1970.) Considering how much has to be cut, how much needs to be contained, the only question is whether or not Aquila is crazy enough to pull it off.

Yes, emphatically so. Director Peter Meinecke might as well be wearing a straightjacket, for he channels the best sort of madness: one which, as paradoxically as anything in Heller’s world, makes perfect sense. Stock black-and-white military footage establishes scenery that is pure propaganda; the minimalist sets (hospital beds, a life raft, a wire-frame bomber cabin) turn war into a low-budget illusion. And then there are the theatrical opposites, stylized scenes that jar our expectations, from over-the-top drama to violent romances and sublimely staged bombing missions. Save for a few overlong set changes, carefully choreographed by Desiree Sanchez, the pace of the play matches Heller’s breakneck prose. Finally, as if things weren’t mad enough, each of the six ensemble members is triple-cast (at least), which makes characters that are already flamboyantly contradictory seem even more two-faced, and gives substance to the paranoia of the central character, Yossarian (John Lavelle).

Lavelle’s measured yet manic portrayal of Yossarian is the heart of the production, both a microcosm and reflection of everything that happens around him. Lavelle resembles the Ron Livingstone of Office Space and Band of Brothers, which is to say that he is both a restless schlub and a hardened soldier. Moreover, he’s got the acting chops to oscillate bravely between the two at the drop of a hat--or more specifically, the change of a light cue. For Catch-22 to work, Yossarian must be both sane and insane, a feat that Lavelle achieves by fully pursuing clear actions—actions which just happen to change in the blink of an eye.

Lavelle’s sense of balance becomes clear whenever he leaves the stage, for the scenes that focus purely on themes—like Colonel Cathcart (David Bishins) and his sycophantic Lt. Col. Korn (Craig Wroe), who are happy to sacrifice men to further their careers—come across as preachy parodies. The weakest moments focus on Milo Minderbinder (Chip Brookes), who takes his capitalist syndicate to the furthest extreme when he contracts with the Germans and uses military supplies to strafe his own camp. Milo, with his safari-like hat and wide-eyed glasses, is meant to mock our values by showing their true costs, but alone, he's a stock character, and stock—in plays as in soup—is meant to enhance the other ingredients, not stand out on its own.

Of course, there's plenty of room in Catch-22 for actors to show off their range, and Mark Alhadeff and Christina Pumariega seize the opportunity. Alhadeff switches from a quiet, bumbling Chaplain to playing Wintergreen, a sleazy slouch who revels in the suffering he dispenses through the mail, whereas Pumariega plays every grown woman in the show, from prostitutes to nurses to grieving mothers, always capturing both the comic highs and the mournful lows. The flavors occasionally fail to mix (Richard Sheridan Willis is outstanding as Doc Daneeka, trying to convince the military he’s not dead, but lost as the bland Major Major Major), but a production this ambitious calls for an adventurous chef like Meinecke.

Here’s a catch: if you’ve read this far, you’re the audience this play is looking for. If you haven’t read this far, then you’ll never read these words. In which case, you’ve read this far, so go on, get a little crazy.

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Catch-22
(2hrs 20min, 1 intermission)
Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher Street)

Tickets (212-279-4200): $49.00
Performances (through 12/20): Tues. - Sat. @ 8 | Wed., Sat., Sun @ 2

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Macbeth

Macbeth meets Cinemax in Roust Theatre Company's contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare's classic. set against the backdrop of a sinister underworld -- where power, money, and suspicion and all mixed in a boiling pot with lust, vice and murder.


Reviewed by Patrick Wood

Significantly truncated but brimming with sex and blood, Macbeth resurfaces this month at the Roust Theatre Company, ready to shock and eager to please. If the extensively choreographed fights, prolonged scenes of torture, full-frontal nudity and pervasive fornication are any indication, director James Phillip Gates has his sights on an audience more inclined to revisit their Shakespearean studies over Jagerbombs at a club than a night at the theatre. His intentions—to shockingly emphasize the baser human instincts running rampant in Shakespeare’s jet-black tragedy for a contemporary audience—are both admirable and ambitious. Unfortunately, this Macbeth’s comment on the downfalls of ambition extends to the production itself.

With performances that ring false and a vision too vague to bring insight into its imagining of the text, Roust’s Macbeth cannot justify its envelope-pushing approach. If the plan is to stage a great many graphic rape scenes, they need to serve a dramatic purpose: instead, it’s like being bludgeoned with an oversize hammer.

Trey Ziegler’s performance as Macbeth inopportunely mirrors that of Arrested Development’s pathetic Tobias Funke. Ziegler looks the part, with his bright red hair and devious grin, but fails to breathe any life into the Scottish king, gesturing and intoning without the kind of clear, specific decisions that connect a performance to the emotional realities of an audience. Tracy Hostmyer’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth as a vulnerable, selfish sexpot hints at the resonance Gate’s imagining could have had, but for the most part the cast is disconnected. Watching these actors emote even when they’re silent in the background brings to mind the seriousness of the phrase “acting is reacting.”

In setting his Macbeth in an indistinct time and place, full of guns and swords, retro military uniforms and modern sports jackets, Gates follows a well-tread path of recent Shakespeare revivals without adding anything to the clear message that these events are timeless in their origins. As realized, the interpretation lacks the clear voice (the vision of a universe that can immerse us) necessary to elevate the production beyond simply looking like a show made from tag sales and costume shops hit by the recession.

Toward the end of the play, moments arise that hint at a communal sense of humor, an acceptance of the absurdity of the production. The audience laughed, the actors looked like they were actually having fun, the entire room breathed a sigh of relief. For a few brief minutes, everyone could enjoy themselves without the fear of offensively staged sexual violence masked as important theatre. With a heavy dose of camp, this whole affair could have been a damn good time.

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[MACBETH] (100 Minutes, No Intermission)
[Roust Theatre Company] (311 West 43rd Street)
[TICKETS] ($18)
[WED-MON @ 8PM] (through December 6)

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Funeralogues

Given a moving backdrop, The Funeralogues fails to move quickly enough.


Reviewed by Ellen Wernecke

“While most little girls were planning for their wedding,” Stacy Mayer declares at the beginning of The Funeralogues, “I was planning for my funeral.” When delivered at the altar of All Souls Church on the Upper East Side, Mayer’s cheeky line is both more realistic—the show, after all, begins with a piano accompaniment solemn enough that it feels inappropriate to clap—and less believable. She will nearly get the chance to stage her own funeral over the course of The Funeralogues, an hour-long show written by Robert Charles Gompers and directed by Molly Marinik, but before that, she’ll meander through several others’ experiences with death—a journey that isn’t quite as vivid or moving.

Mayer embodies several characters within the show, from an elementary school teacher grasping at the correct response when she learns that one of her pupils has died to the last survivor of a family with 13 children. Gompers draws from famous eulogies in history, medieval mourning custom (in which “grief was appropriated by rank”) and blockbuster movies and stacks them up, tier by tier to form the body of the show in between reenactments of, for example, a 6-year-old’s Barbie funeral. (She had a dream life, but now Skipper is already honing in on her man against their owner’s wishes.)

But it doesn’t add up because Mayer doesn’t do enough to differentiate her characters. A series of old people with different accents are still too much alike; when she goes on to deliver one-liners from a sampling of eulogies, those character capsules have more contrast to them than much of the previous half hour. Toward the bottom of the show, we are introduced to a character who has a truly unique story to tell—a “casualty specialist” dispatched to the families of American soldiers who have died in the service, forced to deal with the aftermath of a bombing in Bahrain—but it doesn’t hit the emotional heights it should. The location of The Funeralogues is the perfect setting for this reflective show, but it ultimately doesn’t deliver because it doesn’t give the audience enough to hold onto in its depictions of those facing death. Instead, far too often it’s like being at a wake for a stranger.

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Through December 13 at All Souls Chapel, 1157 Lexington Ave. For more information, visit Funeralogues.com.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

837 Venice Boulevard

Experimental dance is used to return to a world of limitless creativity, but that childhood world idles a little too long. It evokes interest, yet fails to fully enthrall.

Reviewed by Adrienne Urbanski

Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." The answer, it seems, is to return to that world of limitless creativity, the place where real and imaginary merge. The place where societal boundaries don’t yet exist and you are still discovering and finding yourself within your body. 837 Venice Boulevard refers to choreographer Faye Driscoll’s childhood address, and the programs and promotional materials all boast a color photo of Faye and her sister standing in front of their Californian home. It’s a jump back in time with experimental dance.

837 opens with dancer Celia Rowlson-Hall singing a warbly, surreal song on the lost feeling of childhood, the feeling of when all you know and hold on to for safety has been ripped from you. As she sings she alternates between shadowboxing and twitching her head stiffly to one side, ending with a screaming refrain that she, like the members of the audience, are “waiting for the show.” What follows is an exploration of the body’s state in childhood. The twenty-something dancers all expertly capture both the awkwardness and freedom of this age, moving with flying, clumsy limbs from one side of the stage to the other, or, halting suddenly, trying to find their steps and falling in sync.

The show frequently makes use of a form of dance akin to puppetry where one or two dancers take control of another dancer’s body, choosing their movements for them. This method evokes a childhood sense of identity displacement. At one point, Rowlson-Hall is instructed that it is time for her big dance number, the moment she has been waiting for her entire life. She falls to the floor in terror, exclaiming that she isn’t ready, while the other two dancers take control of her small body, spinning her and making her leap across the floor. Later, this struggle turns sexual. Rowlson-Hall tempts to fight off the dancer Michael Helland; his hands reach between her legs while she struggles to push them away until their fists push back and forth. When she later seems to accept his advances and begins to lean in for a kiss, a third dancer interrupts them with a gift of glimmering pink and gold superhero capes. This thrusts them back into the safety of their childhood innocence.

Although each segment of the dance fully evokes childhood sensibility, many of them stretch far too long or leave the stage empty and quiet enough for the clicks and whirrs of the stage lights to become audible. As an audience we often have the feeling that we too are "waiting for the show”—waiting for it to begin, always expecting the show to switch gears and really start. This start never seems to fully arrive. Instead, 837 Venice Boulevard comes across as one long prelude. There's worthwhile material, but we get the sense that Driscoll and her dancers are capable of more, and that a great, more enthralling work is somewhere right around the bend.

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837 Venice Boulevard (90 minutes no intermission)
Here Arts Center (145 Sixth Avenue)
Tickets (212-352-3101) $15
Performances through 11/22 @ 7:30pm

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Self Portrait with Empty House

Buildings, like people hold many secrets. In Self Portrait with Empty House, actor and playwright Edgar Oliver reveals the secrets of his own building, in this captivating one-man show.

Photo/Dixie Sheridan

Reviewed by Ilana Novick

Edgar Oliver’s one-man play, East Tenth Street: Self Portrait with Empty House, is an unsentimental yet utterly captivating glimpse into a building and the people that give it life. Oliver takes the stage as a tour guide for the tenement building he’s lived in since his early days in New York. Its residents, because of their interests, age, or mental state, are often relegated to the fringes of society, but Oliver puts them front and center, displaying an entire world with nothing more than his words, his hands, voice and memories.

The bare set highlights Oliver, whose black-clad body practically blends in with the stage, leaving only his face and hands illuminated. That’s the point, for his hands and face are the deft instruments that sing of Freddie the often-naked dwarf and Kabbalah enthusiast; Donald the alcoholic postman, and Frances, the landlord’s former wet nurse, now senile, whose now spends her time cleaning her rag collection. The lives, told as anecdotes, are shocking enough to keep the audience’s attention—everyone’s out to kill someone, the superintendent greets residents wearing only a towel, and Freddie spends a suspicious amount of time mixing and guarding a mysterious green liquid that might be made from urine.

The way Oliver’s hands dance to his stories is rhythmic and vivid, like he’s forming his neighbors out of thin air, introducing them to the audience without them being present. His eyes also play a starring role, widening with terror when a neighbor tries to hit him over the head, narrowing (and accompanied by with maniacal laughter) when death is narrowly averted.

Oliver says he loves to observe things inside and outside of his building, taking walks through various parts of the city, reveling in the most desolate areas, looking for the barest hints of life. This might seem voyeuristic, but the play doesn’t treat his neighbors like circus curiosities. Though they don’t meet happy ends, Oliver manages to convey their demises with a sadness mixed with the barest hint of ghoulish glee. It takes a very charismatic performer to stand on a stage and talk about his apartment building, and have it feel as if you’ve actually followed him down the rabbit hole. With Randy Sharp’s taut direction, and Oliver’s eye for detail and sense of genuine concern and wonder, East Tenth Street manages to take you into another world.

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Self Portrait with Empty House (1 hour, no intermission)
Axis Theater (One Sheridan Square)
Tickets: see theatermania.com
Performances (through 11/22): Thurs. - Sat. @ 8pm.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Footage

There are a lot of nice surprises in Joshua Scher's dark drama, The Footage. The plot establishes its cred by using the various media (video blogs, porn, and machinima), and the dialogue sometimes turns grainy hay to gold. But despite some nice comic romances, the too-tidy ending threatens to undo a lot of good work, like magnets to a VHS.


Photo/Joan Marcus

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Perception is a funny thing. The footage on screen is grainy, and hard to see. But, it's of a hot young girl in a white wife-beater, posing on a chair. Then again, she's handcuffed to the chair and crying. But, these clips go up every day on YouTube, and they've got a LonelyGirl15-level following, so maybe it's not real. It seems the girl is innocent, and in pain. Maybe she's not, maybe she's a masochist. A discussion on semiotics--the true meaning behind the signs that we see, i.e., is your red the same as my red--is the last thing you'd expect of Joshua Scher's dark drama, The Footage, but it's just one in a series of pleasant surprises.

Scher has an ear for language, and this helps him navigate his bumpy, multi-perspective narrative. Whether it's whimpering video clips of this so-called "death porn" footage; a real-world love story between lonely Alexa (Rachel McPhee) and JC (Michael Guagno), a reserved runaway; or even comically anachronistic machinima, in which video from "HellCraft" (I assume there's a legal issue) is edited and dubbed to make the characters talk about Jamba Juice, the characters sound real. Maya (Caroline Hurley) delivers blogs in monologue form, worrying about the implications of voyeurism that makes us implicit in a crime; her boyfriend, Chance (Jamie Effros), a filmmaker stuck doing TV, is struck by the brilliance of it, morals be damned; and the kidnapped Delilah (Elizabeth Alderfer) is a victim, but not necessarily as you expect. More surprisingly, for such a heavy theme, Scher is able to work in ROFLMAO (pronounced "roffle mao," meaning Rolling On Floor, Laughing My Ass Off) comedy by stressing the online flirting between Chance's "l33t" gamer of a roommate, Ethan (Michael Micalizzi) and Alexa's germaphobic roommate, Lauren (Blair Baker).

What's most surprising is that for a play which stresses the line between what's real and what's not, so much of the acting seems real. Even Dodge (Nicolas Flower), a friend of Chance's who is crashing for a week as he gets over a text-messaged break-up, sounds believable, even if the things that happen to him are both irrelevant and artificial. As for the rest of the cast, they all get a few moments to develop beyond their broader stereotypes--Guagno reveals a darker side, Hurley thinks outside the blog, and Baker and McPhee spend a wonderful scene getting baked together, talking about why hitting on an avatar is better than talking to a random guy at a bar. It's not just a clever moment, it's original, too.

Given all these good moments, it's an unfortunate surprise to find that the ending is more than a little contrived, although director Claudia Zelevansky finds an artistic way to handle it (as she does with Adrian Jones's budget-appropriate set). Giving The Footage such a neat ending fights the impulses of the entire show; trust Ethan, instead, who nails it when he says, of his online relationship, "I know it wasn't real real . . . But I had enough to fill in the blanks." All Scher needs is one more change in perception, just something a little more grainy at the end.

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The Footage (90 min., no intermission)
The Flea (41 White Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101 ): $20.00
Performances (through 11/30): Dates vary.

The Footage

Two groups of friends find themselves caught up in the world of viral videos and must ask themselves how far they can let themselves go before losing touch with reality. Can they give up their vices before it's too late?

Photo/Joan Marcus

Reviewed by Caitlin Fahey

Have you heard of LonelyGirl15? Have you seen Law and Order SVU or Fear.com? If so, The Footage won’t be particularly eye-opening. For all the impressively quick-witted dialogue, the play seems all too familiar, and we already know from reality TV that America has become a nation of voyeurs who don’t need talent to make it big as a celebrity.

The Footage’s dialogue is natural, provocative, and contemporary, which should appeal to today’s generation of YouTube-watching, virtual-reality-loving gamers. The cast does well to draw the audience into a world that may or may not be real. The only problem is that, in today’s oversaturated world, the plot may be played out.

The Footage chronicles the lifestyles of two groups of twenty-somethings. Roommates Lauren, Alexa, and Delilah shelter bootcamp-runaway JC and upload viral videos to the web every night to chronicle the kidnapping and torture of Delilah. Alexa studies literature and flirts with JC while Delilah performs self-mutilation with paper-clips and wracks her brain for new gimmicks to bring more hits to her posts. Lauren is perhaps the most distraught over Delilah’s behavior, and seeks solace in the virtual world of MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games).

Across the country, buddies Dodge, Ethan, and Chance, along with Chance’s girlfriend Maya, are drawn into the world of “Lilah1617.” Chance and Ethan quickly become obsessed with the posts and scour the videos for hours, looking for a clue that will deem Lilah’s encounters either real or fake. Disgusted by their behavior, Maya finds her inspiration to write again after a lengthy bout of writer’s block, and begins a blog. Ironically, Maya’s blogging ultimately makes her just as much an addict as Ethan and Chance. Dodge remains the least affected by Delilah’s postings which allows him to get to closer to Maya as Chance drifts deeper into a virtual world comprised of mysterious footage.

Erin Elizabeth Murphy’s costumes are wholly believable, right down to the ironic stoner T-shirts, and Adrian W. Jones has designed an intimate space that fits the themes of the show. As the characters watch the footage, the audience closely observes the characters, which raises the question: when do we move from voyeurs to prisoners? Is it worse to watch, or to watch those who are watching? If U.S. citizens will watch terrorist beheadings for fun, at what point does live murder become unacceptable?

Along with Room404’s video design, these effects craft a real world that nicely balances the fantasies that the play calls into question. Director Claudia Zelevansky does a fine job of combining these creative elements to blur the line between the candid and the scripted, the “real world” and the realm of fantasy; however, it’s so real that it’s been done before.

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THE FOOTAGE (90 minutes, no intermission)

FLEA THEATER (41 White Street)

TICKETS: $20

Performances (through 11/30): Friday and Saturday 7:00; Sunday 3:00

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Most Damaging Wound

Talk about range: Blair Singer's The Most Damaging Wound opens with a stream of curses and a flood of alcohol, builds from frenzy of casual crudeness into a series of subtle emotions and then--while still propelling itself through some wild antics--puts its hand on the pulse of Male Maturity, and keeps it there for ninety of the best minutes you'll spend in a theater.

Photo/Deanna R. Frieman

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The Most Damaging Wound opens with a stream of curses--"Fucking, fucking, fucking say it, G"--and a flood of Jagermeister shots, but director Mark Armstrong ritualizes these excesses into an utterly realistic depiction of male friendship. Better still, Blair Singer's script takes its characters far more seriously than Howard Korder's Boy's Life, and its dialogue is more grown up than the sort of glib posturing that one finds in works like Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things. (This is surprising, considering that Singer recently wrote for Weeds.) The secret seems to be the underlying pedigree, an epigraph from Robert Bly's Iron John: "[W]hat do men do? Collect in a bar to hold light conversations over light beer . . . Having no soul union with other men can be the most damaging wound of all."

At first, all that energetic drinking conceals those wounds: on the surface, this is a play about five friends reuniting (after ten years) to have one last night of childish fun before they burn the past and become "men." But directly beneath that is a largely unspoken fear--hence the liquid courage--that they are not ready, and for that, Kenny (Ken Matthews) has called them together: a night of male bonding may not help him get over his fears of being a father, but he needs to have his "quest for masculinity" understood by other men. This leads to some rather brave revelations, the sort that aren't normally seen on stage. For instance, when Christine (Megan McQuillan) intrudes on their gathering, it becomes clear that Alan (Michael Szeles) is having an affair, but that's not what gets Kenny's goat: it's that Alan didn't confide in him.

The whole thing is naturally done, however, with small things slipping out between big comedic anecdotes--like where Dicky (Chris Thorn) was before his wedding--or rowdy singalongs to "Closer to Fine" that serve to illustrate just how tight these friends are. GG (Michael Solomon) spends most of the play being a cypher, trying to make sure that his soon-to-be restaurant isn't totally wrecked by the party, until it comes out that his desire to be a "best friend" has made him somewhat shy. If you went a second time, you'd catch the side glances, but it's best to be caught off guard by their realism (after all, why would true friends wink to the audience?). In the highlight of the evening, Dicky--the sort of crass drunk who is nonetheless the life of the party--sobers up enough to finally confront Bo (Bard Goodrich), who had been his best friend before he disappeared without a word seven years ago. Chris Thorn's performance is fantastic throughout the night, filled with hundreds of tics and tremors, but it's here, a perfectly ambiguous moment when he goes to kiss Bo (who is gay), that he is outstanding: that vulnerability is rarely seen, especially from someone who has moaned his way through taking a crap earlier in the night.

The result of all this outstanding acting, superb pacing, and impeccable direction is a show that is genuinely surprising. It's also incredibly personal, especially if you're sitting in the first row, stage left, a foot or so from the actors. Armstrong, who has worked in small spaces before, makes the most of the Manhattan Theater Source space, putting action off-stage, or from outside April Bartlett's set, as seen through a "window." The end result is that it all seems very lived in, which is to say that it goes beyond being plausible to feeling concrete--not just the "Hey, I have friends like that" effect, but the "I feel exactly the same way" connection. The most damaging wound, then, would be the theater community's self-inflicted one if this play fails to transfer.

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The Most Damaging Wound (90min, no intermission)
Manhattan Theater Source (115 MacDougal Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $20
Performances (through 11/29): Wed. - Sat. @ 8 | Sat. @ 3

Thursday, November 13, 2008

If You See Something, Say Something

If You See Something, Say Something is a political play in the first-person, a unique trait that allows it to be socially responsible on a collective scale. It is first-rate theater, too--a direct story, with no mixed messages, that reminds us all of the very power we have to say something.

Photo/Kenneth Aaron

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Forget the superficial description of Mike Daisey--Spalding Grey meets Chris Farley says so little--and don't worry about whether or not If You See Something, Say Something, his latest monologue, is worth seeing: it is. If you like storytelling, and you must if you like theater, then it hardly matters how Daisey acts or what he talks about, so long as he remains charismatic, vivacious, and funny: he does.

You go to see this sort of perfomer, a sit-down comic with considerably more gravitas (and sure enough, they're making a movie), because he has an ability to say what's on your mind, often in a way that is far cleverer and certainly funnier than you yourself would put it. But that's only half the picture, the cultural magnet part that describes a junk shop in New Mexico as Mad Max meets Brazil. The far more engaging half is the indignant Daisey, offended on your behalf, at the museum that announces, to a soundtrack that is Shaft meets electronica, that "Native Americans were happy to give us their land." The Daisey who is horrified by the way we unabashedly claim that saving one million hypothetical American lives in the Pacific was worth more than 200,000 Japanese women and children, and then go about erasing the actual deaths, turning our nation's nuclear history into a bloodless affair. As he puts it, smiling ever so slightly and then going back to a straightface that belies his depth, "We like to think of ourselves as the good guys."

The only complaint about If You See Something, Say Something is a moot one: the monologue may be artificially constructed, but it's performed to perfection. Daisey knows that his work is strongest when he speaks from personal experience; his description of a Seattle garage theater production of The Balcony (in How Theater Failed America) is an indelible moment. It's hardly wrong for the man, then, to go out into the world, all Michael Moore-like, in search of an experience that he can plug into the research he's done. Given that, his monologue consists not just of things that he's experienced (security theater at the airport) but things that he's subjected himself to (going to the Trinity test site). It is rounded out both by his research (the moral feud over atomic weapons between Sam Cohen and Herman Kahn, delivered in a fashion that the History Channel would do well to note) and by what most likely triggered this monologue, his strongest moments on stage: what he's disgusted by (Homeland Security, and its Skeletor-looking Michael Chertoff).

If You See Something, Say Something is a political play in the first-person, a unique trait that allows it to be socially responsible on a collective scale. It is first-rate theater, too--a direct story, with no mixed messages, that reminds us all of the very power we have to say something.

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If You See Something, Say Something (1hr 40min, no intermission)
Joe's Pub (425 Lafayette Street)
Tickets (212-967-7555): $40-70
Performances (through 11/30): See Web site

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents

Sex--or rather "fucking"--are the big distractions on display in Lukas Barfuss's restrained The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents, but the action that he and director Kristjan Thor are really interested in are the small quivers just below the surface. To this end, this is Grace Gummer's show: she plays the emotionally restrained Dora with such control that the antiseptic tone eventually justifies itself.

Photo/Thomas Hand Keefe

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents throws around the word "fuck" a lot, especially from the mouth of its protagonist, Dora (Grace Gummer), an emotionally challenged girl who is, for the first time in ten years, "pulling down the pharmaceutical curtain." The writer, Lukas Barfuss (translated here by Neil Blackadder), painstakingly describes sexuality, using the Doctor (Peter O'Connor) to stress the sheer normalcy of even deviant behaviors--Dora shows up one day with bruises--and concludes, after five minutes: "Don't go for more than two at once, and don't change partners more than a week." But the play is about a sexual awakening in the same way that fucking is the same as making love: what it's about goes much deeper, and this is where Kristjan Thor's direction is invaluable.

It's about the moment when the Fine Gentleman (Max Lodge) asks Dora's Boss (Jim Noonan) how much the government subsidizes his grocery stand--and how the Boss turns to his mother, Woman (Kathryn Kates), taken aback not by the thought, but of how it's been said out loud. It's about the moment when the Fine Gentleman--who is actually a sleazy door-to-door salesman--having lured Dora to his neon-lit hotel, explains that perfume is made from ox shit, and soap from pig fat. It's about the moment when Dora catches Mother and Father (Laura Heidinger and Charlie Mitchell) having sex in a trailer, and not with each other.

Like the unnamed characters themselves, the play is about these unacknowledged surfaces, and that's what makes the slow build toward Dora's true awakening so tragic. Beyond the dull "I dunno" and her energetic parroting, this girl, described as "almost not being involved," actually has feelings (although the sadism is a bit cliche--"I like it rough, otherwise I don't feel anything"), as do the people around her, who can only face their own damages in front of her. "No big deal," she says, after revealing that she hates wearing pants, but also after talking about the bruises on her body, or after describing what it felt like to have her baby sucked out of her; it's not until the final injustice to her that her casual response becomes choked, at last, by visible grief.

To this end, it is really Grace Gummer's play, and she utterly commands the stage in an immaculately restrained performance. At first, she is locked inside herself, largely talked at by her family and reduced to short monotone responses. But as she leaves the numbing drugs behind, her deadpan is interrupted by her sarcastic but spot-on repetitions from the world around her, something that only serves to make her even more of a mirror. By the end of the play, she is still fairly still, but her words are more and more her own, like her needs. That is far from a neurosis, and far too near to tragedy.

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The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents (90 min., no intermission)
The Wild Project (195 East Third Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00
Performances (through 11/22): Mon. - Sat. @ 8:00

Monday, November 10, 2008

Mindgame

Nothing is as it seems in this intellectually-stimulating thriller/farce about a writer that visits an insane asylum to write a book about one of its residents. Although Mindgame has a slow beginning, the first-rate performances, solid script and great set make it a wonderful show.

Lee Godart and Keith Carradine in Mindgame
Photo by Aaron Epstein

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Anthony Horowitz's Mindgame is a mind-bending and entertaining exploration of sanity that not only dares you to question society's standard, but tickles your funny bone, too. From the opening sequences where we hear a kooky song with the lyrics “run rabbit run” (not the Eminem or Pink Floyd version) interrupting the quiet to the Houdini-like set where doors seem to appear and disappear, we are being set up for a ride into madness. The ride is closer to the Teacups than the Scream Machine, but blood pumping through your brain is just as valuable as blood pumping through your heart.

For some people, staying in one's head too long can sometimes be a bad thing, as with Mark Styler (Lee Godart), a pulp-crime novelist who has built a career on serial killers. While waiting for two hours for Dr. Farquhar in his office, Styler captures his impression of the Fairfields asylum on tape, but his relentless musings on his strange environment seem unnatural. It's even odder when things that should be recorded on tape are not: when “run rabbit run” comes on and shuts off inexplicably several times, Styler doesn't reach for his tape recorder. From there on out, it's used sparingly.

By the time Keith Carradine enters the stage, you're ready for some excitement, but it doesn't come immediately. As Farquhar, Carradine is a commanding presence, but his exchanges with Godart are so cyclical at first that it slows down the pacing of the plot. However, the dialogue soon opens up to reveal great chemistry between the two actors and an invigorating, mental dance. Styler does his best to see a patient named Easterman, but Farquhar is steadfast in denying him access and repeatedly asks him to leave. Too bad Styler won't accept no for an answer.

Between lines of dialogue that are pregnant with underlying meaning and subtle humor, Kathleen McNenny cuts in as Nurse Plimpton, a 40s-dialect talking dame with a pink wig and a sexy nurse costume befitting of Jennifer Tilly. If you think you have the play figured out by then, Plimpton throws a monkey wrench in your confidence. Her appearance softens Farquhar's resolve, and soon he's not only letting Styler stay, but coaxing him into trying on a straightjacket to experience how the crazy half lives. Everything after that unfolds in a Psycho kind of way that confounds, amuses, and appeals.

Whether you're able to stay two steps ahead of the show or not, it has many enjoyable elements. From the fantastic performances of the cast under Ken Russell's direction to Beowulf Boritt's dazzling set, it awakens all senses and keeps them awake. Throw in Bernard Fox's sound clips that appropriately match the tension or levity of each scene, and what you get is a thought-provoking, quality show. Mindgame is part chess and part charades, and all wonderfully perplexing.


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Mindgame (2 hrs, 20 min with intermission)
Soho Playhouse (15 Vandam Street btwn 6th avenue and Varick St.)
Tickets: 212-691-1555 $64-$74

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Missa Solemnis, or the Play about Henry

Strong performances overcome a clunky script to bring powerful emotion to Missa Solemnis, or the Play about Henry as it tells the true story of a 32-year-old Mormon man, Henry Stuart Matis, who killed himself eight years ago after a lifelong struggle between his homosexuality and his faith.


Reviewed by Meg van Huygen

With a thunderclap and a flash of lightning, Missa Solemnis, or the Play about Henry grabs your attention at the start. Right away, we meet the full cast and are directly introduced to their fates, and then we travel back in time to see how they arrived there. The story concerns Henry, a gay Californian man who lives with his family and struggles with his devout Mormonism, which places homosexuality second only to murder. Matt Huffman is well cast as Henry: believable in appearance, soft and serious, and earnest in his delivery. His prayers to Heaven for understanding are particularly moving and effective.

Henry’s parents are equally moving, especially his father, Fred (Bill Fairbairn), whose combination of rough and tumble, go-get-’em dad-talk and his responsibility to the church endears him to the audience while simultaneously showing us his plight. Fred can accept his son as he is, but he doesn’t trust the community to, so he arranges a meeting between Henry and an LDS bishop with a reputation for “curing” boys with Henry’s “condition.”

Although deceptively simple, the set is remarkably adaptable. Lighting and a single curtain take us from a Mormon kitchen to a Chelsea pad to the bishop’s living room, the last of which hosts the play’s crown jewel, Bishop Bob Rhodes (Warren Katz). Katz’s delivery vacillates between gravity and disarming lightness in such a comforting pattern that it brings both Henry and the audience some relief and hope. What could have been a preachy, difficult scene is transformed into revelation. The humanity that Bishop Rhodes displays elevates the emotional resonance of their conversation.

Nearly as resonant is the playful (and, for a while, naked) performance of Jai Catalano as Todd Elliott, Henry’s secret lover in New York. Catalano’s easy attitude fits the sort of guy who might believably pick up an awkward Mormon boy who orders a glass of milk at a gay bar, and who might just guide him through his coming out as well. His behavior is markedly more familiar than the rest of the cast’s, which is appropriate, as the world he comes from is so very different than Henry’s, so much closer to our own.

In contrast, Gail Winar is less convincing as Henry’s mother, Marilyn; one gets the sense that the playwright didn’t like the character very much. (She’s also ill-served by an unfortunate wig.) However, Winar redeems herself toward the end of the story with a sorrowful howl of raw, honest power. Even after the lights come up, that anguish remained echoing through the audience: some dabbed their eyes, some were too stunned to do even that.

Missa Solemnis, or the Play about Henry is an important and thought-provoking play about the age-old battle between religion and sexuality-—two invisible forces that control and direct our lives—-and theatergoers who wish to lead what Socrates termed "an examined life" should pay attention.

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Missa Solemnis, or the Play about Henry (1 hour, 40 minutes, no intermission)
TBG Arts Complex (312 West 36th Street, 3rd floor)
Tickets: $18
Wed - Sat, 8pm, through November 22nd

The Angel Eaters Trilogy

Photo/Johnna Adams

After seeing all three parts of Johnna Adams's ambitious, generation-spanning Angel Eaters Trilogy, I can't shake the image of the playwright as a smarter version of the evil "Mama" who shows up in Part Three. She sits in a giant vat, but rather than absorbing nutrients, she takes in the pop culture of the last thirty years, and instead of churning out clones and selling them for organs, she fires out plays. Her distinct voice shines through this batch of trips: comic exposition often well-hidden by clever circumstances. Nor are her jumping genres striving to be August Wilson; instead, Adams is writing for Goldilocks. One play does too little, failing to develop its characters and leaping to an abrupt ending (Angel Eaters); one play does too much, with characters flailing all over the place (Antichrists); and one manages to be just right, finding a middle ground that captures the Southern Gothic vibe and runs with it (Rattlers). Each play succeeds (and fails) on its own, which means there's something for everyone, especially fans of Flux Theatre Ensemble, who will spend twenty days straight being just as ambitious as Adams. You can see our more-detailed coverage by following the links to the individual plays above.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

8 Little Antichrists

Fans of Philip K. Dick will feel right at home with the convoluted sleuthing going on in this clone-centered 2026 dystopia, but they may be unsettled by the cheesier-than-Max Headroom presentation and a self-satire that's running on fumes from the get-go. There's plenty to laugh at--in fact, there's nothing else to do with 8 Little Antichrists and its puppet overlords--but there's unfortunately not much to really care about.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

If 8 Little Antichrists is supposed to be taken seriously--which it might seem, if you've seen the first two parts of the trilogy--then it has some very hefty problems. Thankfully, Flux takes it only as seriously as it needs to--and the thought of black-winged angels facing off bloody-horned heroes in California, 2028, is already sort of ridiculous--and takes a tongue-in-cheek approach that lets us suspend our disbelief in a cheesy Max Headroom sort of future.

The hero this time around is a Philip K. Dick-brand detective, Claudia (Candice Holdorf), who is investigating the death of her clone sister, Sara Jane, only to find that there may be more to the murder than she suspects. Along the way, she falls for one of the suspects, Jeremy (Zack Robidas), but not before he is kidnapped by fallen angels Sem and Zaz (Felicia Hudson and Elise Link, channeling a fashionably authoritative Mod Squad vibe) and forced to resurrect the octuplet antichrists, cloned from the Dahmers and Gengis Khans of the world. To make things more convoluted, the clone mother is Claudia's Mama (Nora Hummel), a self-obsessed nag who lives in a nutrient-pumping vat and dreams of the day when she'll have sold enough of her offspring to upgrade. Oh, and Jeremy's paranoid sister, Melanie (Rebecca McHugh) has actually found the vessel of God in a happy meal--if only she can pry it away from the Clockwork Orange-like drizz-heads, Thump and Fibber (Jake Alexander and Joe Mathers, high-octane comic relief). Cue the over-the-top action.

8 Little Antichrists is the most creative of Johnna Adams's trilogy, but all her inventive satire is totally caught up in the relentless (and nonsensical) plot. The clever observations--for instance, Sony's Worker Retrieval Program, which copyrights the DNA of productive employees for future use--don't mesh with action sequences in which Holdorf plays at least four different clone versions of herself as they battle one another in a fight sequence that would make Qui Nguyen jealous (though by no means intimidated). This dystopic future is frightening enough without Sem and Zaz harmonizing their ode to Satan, nor is there room for romance. After a while, the self-satire runs on fumes, although August Schulenburg certainly gives it his all as Ezekiel, managing to savor hammy lines like "Evil is a hobby of mine" right up there with Mr. Applegate himself. But to stick with Damn Yankees, for a moment, you gotta have heart, and for all the energetic laughs, this play doesn't have one.

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8 Little Antichrists (1hr 30min, 1 intermission)
Wings Theater (154 Christopher Street)
Tickets: $18.00 ($40.00 for all three plays)
Performances (through 11/22): In repertory with Angel Eaters and Rattlers, see website for details

Friday, November 07, 2008

Rattlers

This new murder mystery by Johnna Adams is full of quick thrills that keeps its audience guessing. Scene for scene, its snappy dialogue and unique characters make it an edge-of-your seat kind of evening. For those among us who take our comedy black with a twist and a dash of bitters.

Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis

Johnna Abrams’ Rattlers, the second in a supernatural trilogy, brings Greek tragedy to 1970s Oklahoma. In one corner, a pastor named Osley (Jason Paradine) is kidnapped by his high-school sweetheart Ernelle (Amy Lynn Stewart) and her new beau Snake (Scott Drummond). They want him to use his demonic powers to resurrect Ernelle’s murdered younger sister. Taking center stage, the townie funeral director, Ted (Matthew Crosby), and the big-city, reserved, husband Everett (Richard B. Watson) stand outside a funeral parlor discussing the woman they both loved. Lastly, we have Ernelle’s mother Mattie (Jane Lincoln Taylor), a shrewd, tough-as-nails single mother who spends the evening of her daughter’s wake seeking revenge instead of shedding tears. In an effort to uncover the truth she appeals to Ted’s na├»ve younger brother Shane (David Jackson), taking full advantage of his obvious crush on her.

The ensemble works well together, creating a sense of consistency across the alternating storylines. Specifically, Richard B. Watson and Amy Lynn Stewart give excellent performances as a widower struggling not to show his grief and a desperate, bereaved sister. A man’s man through and through, right down to the squinty gaze and long cigarette drags, Mr. Watson takes his time with his lines. His use of dry, well-timed punch lines and cocky body language always keep him the center of attention. As for Ms. Stewart, when she enters in a clingy halter dress and worn red high heels that make her at least as tall as the other men onstage, she grabs our attention right from the start. With solid eye contact and an unquavering, stubborn tone, she makes known her sadness but keeps it in check enough so it never comes across as weakness. Ms. Abrams’ comic timing and effective one-liners contribute to the quick pace of this short piece. This wit, combined with the play’s empathetic humanity, helps the audience to easily follow the different threads. However, too much of the play is spent talking about the past, and little effort is made to push things forward. Also, with all the abrupt shifts between scenes—conversations resume where they left off two scenes ago—it can be hard to keep one’s place in the present.

A similar vagueness surrounds the actual murder. Many characters try to uncover the murderer, but the choppy plot prevents the action from building up in a progressive, organic fashion. The facts never quite get stacked up in place for a long enough time to hold substance, and when the climax occurs, it is disorienting. Additionally, there is the “too many ingredients” problem. As opposed to sticking to one track and making it work, Ms. Abrams tries to combine too many branches of religion and mythology, and by the end they all become muddled.

Overall, Rattlers stands on its own as original theater, taking creative license with its source material instead of simply regurgitating the themes of good and evil. The expert cast and sparkling humor keep this play entertaining, despite the plot’s loose ends. If you’re looking for a quick fix of mysticism and murder with a splash of religion for good measure, you’ll enjoy the wholehearted efforts of the Flux Theater Emsemble.

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Rattlers (1hr 20min, no intermission)
Wings Theater (154 Christopher Street)
Tickets: $18.00 ($40.00 for all three plays)
Performances (through 11/22): In repertory with Angel Eaters and 8 Little Antichrists, see website for details

Rattlers

If you dig the Southern Gothic vibe of True Blood and prefer character over pace, Johnna Adams's deliciously twisted Rattlers has a nice bite to it. The best laid plans may go to pot, but the carefully plotted triptych that's the center of this narrative never misses a chance to underscore some creepy tale with an even creepier subtext, be it with dangerous comedy, tragic love, or freaky normalcy.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Being dragged over to a wooden box filled with rattlesnakes while you're bound and gagged is never a good way to start your day, but it's a great way to start a play, and in Rattlers, Johnna Adams finds her bite, sinking her teeth in quicker than the eye can follow, and never letting up. The unfortunate victim here is Osley (Jason Paradine), and he's been kidnapped by his ex-girlfriend Ernelle (Amy Lynn Stewart) and her hyperactive boyfriend Snake (Scott Drummond); they expect him to resurrect Ernelle's murdered sister, regardless of the cost. Meanwhile, at the funeral home, Ernelle's brother-in-law, the rascal Everett (Richard B. Watson), is having a casual conversation with the creepy undertaker, Ted (Matthew Crosby), in which it seems more and more likely that one of them is the murderer. And in yet another connected but distant scene, Ernelle's mother, Mattie (Jane Lincoln Taylor) is looking for vengeance, although Shane (David Jackson) is hoping she'll just accept his devoted love instead.

By splitting the action (Jerry Ruiz's direction helps it hop along), Adams is able to do her entire trilogy on a micro level, from the comic horrors that the Bonnie and Clyde-like Snake and Ernelle are cooking up to the morbid romance between Shane and Mattie, and the True Blood-like subtexts in the easygoing twangs between Everett and Ted. It also gives her a chance to really focus on more than exposition--there's less plot and more character development, and that's a gift given the outstanding actors, every last one of them, in this production. Things amble along, instead of rushing to conclusions, and part of the fun in Rattlers is trying to guess what these tight-lipped characters will do next (or, with Snake, what he won't do).

Adams has a terrific voice, and her stories actually work on multiple levels. For instance, Ted's tale about sleeping next to the corpse of his obsession is rooted in the subtext in Everett's face as he listens--after all, he was married to her. The same goes for the look of resignation in Shane's eyes when he realizes that the woman he loves has drugged him, or the way Ernelle's good humor evaporates when she realizes that threatening to hurt Osley's daughter won't help--that she'll have to kill one girl to bring back another. This last bit captures the full effect of the trilogy, too: what price won't we pay to get back the ones we love?

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Rattlers (1hr 20min, no intermission)
Wings Theater (154 Christopher Street)
Tickets: $18.00 ($40.00 for all three plays)
Performances (through 11/22): In repertory with Angel Eaters and 8 Little Antichrists, see website for details

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Blasted

By grounding Blasted in utter realism, Sarah Benson has found the true ground zero for Sarah Kane's controversially violent play. Things are painstakingly represented as they worsen, with the focus slowly pulling back from the domestic to the social to the human levels, always with that unrelenting frame keeping things fully in view. Even the surreal moments toward the fragmented end are now utterly human--and wholly indelible.

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

If Beckett had balls, Blasted is the play he would've written, stripping the physical comedy from his hopelessly hopeful looks at humanity. In Sarah Kane's world, the goad doesn't just force us onward: it anally rapes us; water isn't dangling just out of reach, it's locked in the corpse of a dead baby, awaiting our desperation. What's most troubling--and powerful--about Blasted is that it doesn't take place in some surreal landscape, where women are progressively buried in mounds of sand, or where men sit around in a wasteland, or spend their time in garbage cans. It begins in a fancy hotel room (meticulously created by set designer Louisa Thompson)--a place in which our anti-hero can say only "I've shat in better places than this." And thanks to Sarah Benson's unremitting direction, the play remains condemningly fixed in reality, even as it deconstructs into bleak surrealism.

To some people, this may sound rather unpalatable, but that's largely the point: in the midst of our blissful ignorance is an almost accidental violence, one which we are a part of, whether we choose to open the door or not. It's no accident that the central character, Ian (Reed Birney), is a misanthropic reporter: though he carries a gun, he's the most passive of people, something made even clearer when a soldier (Louis Cancelmi) breaks down his door. Even when the story is at his doorstep, he tries to ignore it, explaining things away first as a dream, then as something nobody cares about. And that's where Kane is so effective, and why Benson's direction is so brutal: this world cannot be mistaken as a nightmare nor can we ignore its characters.

You see, Blasted begins with picture perfect domesticity: Ian has brought his girl, Cate (Marin Ireland) to a fancy hotel room for some privacy. Except that by the looks of things, Cate isn't entirely grown-up (she giddily bounces on the bed), and as it turns out, her first dalliances with Ian were as a child. And although Cate cares for Ian--it's tragic to see her try to protect Ian from his self-destructive use of gin and cigarettes--she doesn't want him (and again, it's a sad, quiet moment when Ian undresses for her, only to be laughed out of the room). This doesn't excuse Ian's pathetic violence--he whines like a child and grabs her arm, forcing her to assist in his masturbation--or the next step, a between-scenes rape that's left blood on the sheets, but it keeps it framed in an understandable need.

The success of this production of Blasted is that the frame never collapses, even when the world explodes. Instead, there's the sense of a camera slowly panning out, going from the specific domestic and civil questions "How can we rape the ones we love?" to "How can we excuse things like this?" to the broader social questions ("How does it feel to have done to us what we have done to others?") and ultimately human questions ("How do we go on with what we've done?"). In conjunction with this, there's an outstanding cast that's able to capture such small gestures and miniature moments: even when the scene has pulled back to an almost unrecognizable distance, the underlying humanity is clear, and in that clarity, heartbreaking.

A perfect example: Ian, who has been raped, blinded, and left alone in the ruins, begs Cate for his gun--and she gives it to him, but not before removing the bullets, a moment that is equal parts spite and compassion (and Ireland is one of the few actresses who can carry that across with a single action). Ian then places the gun in his mouth--only to take it out long enough to make sure that Cate isn't standing behind him. The desperate sadness on Birney's face overrides the increasingly fragmented tone of the show, and in quick flashes--a perfect summation of life--we see him go through the stages of grief as he hovers between life and death.

This isn't just marvelous storytelling, it's marvelous everything, and it's through such intense work like this that we are better able to distinguish the hope at the end of this tragedy, just as we are able to pick out the moments of grim comedy and relentless truth. ("You hurt me," says Cate. "No, I love you," says Ian.) Tear down the walls, then, and see what's left.

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Blasted (1hr 40min, no intermission)
Soho Rep (46 Walker Street)
Tickets: $55.00
Performances (extended through 12/21): Tues. - Sun. @ 7:30

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Angel Eaters

If you liked Carnivale and prefer plot to character, Johnna Adams's mystical Angel Eaters is the play for you: con men, weird girls, and angry mothers kicking up a storm in the Dust Bowl era. Stay for Marnie Schulenberg's performance as a touched young girl, and for Jessi D. Hill's atmospheric direction: creepy, yet satisfying.

Photo/Johnna Adams

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Angel Eaters takes place in Oklahoma, 1937, as we meet the cursed Hollister family. Myrtle (Catherine Michele Porter) is in mourning for her husband; her older daughter, Nola (Tiffany Clementi) is drinking turpentine to wash her baby out; and her youngest, Joann (Marnie Schulenburg), thinks that birds are angels, which is great for the local ornithologist, Doc O'Malley (Ken Glickfeld), who gets to play games like "bird in the bush" with her. There's a con artist named Fortune (Gregory Waller), too, and he's selling resurrections courtesy of his "nephew," Enoch (Isaiah Tanenbaum). None of these, as evinced by the lurking, black-eyed Azazyel (Cotton Wright) have to do with the curse: like on the HBO show Carnivale, the real problem is that Joann's latent power to resurrect things comes with a terrible price, a price which unfortunately explodes in a Tales from the Crypt ex machina sort of way.

In truth, Johnna Adams appears to be stretching through most of Angel Eaters, first evoking the depression-era atmosphere (nicely colored by lighting designer Jennifer Rathbone), and then slowly building up Joann's character, enough to make us feel sorry for her victimization. But she leaps into implausible scenes, making Fortune the father of Nola's kid, and turning Enoch into a one-dimensional sounding board: chained up to the Hollister porch as collateral on the resurrection, he's able to listen and watch in fear, but is never given any room to grow. In the climax, characters flip their motivations on a dime, with O'Malley giving Fortune a small fortune to clear out of town, but then showing up with a gun to make sure that he does--not to mention the fact that nobody seems to think they can outrun a 60-year-old with an ax.

And yet, Angel Eaters strings us along on its unconvention, led by Marnie Schulenburg's ability to play a clueless character in a sympathetic way, and by director Jessi D. Hill's use of space and timing, creating an odd mystical tension while at the same time rooting firmly into familar Southern territory. It's a mark of good direction (and swift pacing) that we spend so much time being entertained by relatively soulless characters.

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Angel Eaters (1hr 30min, no intermission)
Wings Theater (154 Christopher Street)
Tickets: $18.00 ($40.00 for all three plays)
Performances (through 11/22): In repertory with Rattlers and 8 Little Antichrists, see website for details

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Estrogenius Week 4

A recent New York Times article described a panel of dissatisfied female writers who believe their work is underrepresented in the local theatre scene. At least over at Manhattan Theatre Source in October, it was all about the ladies.

Reviewed by Ellen Wernecke

It’s fitting that all the short plays in Estrogenius’ fourth week were written and directed by women. But promotional materials for this October’s “celebration of female voices” at Manhattan Theatre Source also feel the need to answer the question of why there are “so many” men in this year’s plays. This is peculiar because it implies that addressing the concerns and describing the lives of women needs to happen in a male-less space. The playwrights certainly don’t need to write men out of their plays in order to be writing from a female perspective (and when they do, it shouldn’t be as a crutch); one play, “Safety First,” says a lot about women without any onstage. If there is a connection in these works, it’s in their treatment of the perception of women and femininity in the public sphere.

The lead-off play, “Little Birds” by Joy McCullough-Carranza, addresses this theme head-on with its portrait of three fictional female astronauts (Lori Brigantino, Dawn D’Arcy, and Lynn Stetson). In its alternate history, a group of women pilots push for a mission to demonstrate their fitness for space, only to find themselves stranded for 42 days on the moon. The leader, the dreamer, and the cynic, facing certain death as their supplies dwindle, reflect on the separate paths that have brought them here, but director Melanie Sutherland never frames the debate in terms of what they gave up; as if respecting the alternate universe of the play, she portrays the women at the end of a long conversation, but at peace with their choices.

Danna Call’s “Safety First” (directed by Maura Kelley) treats femininity through its opposite: the traditionally masculine pursuit of hunting. Two hicks (Tomike Ogugua and Robert Ross Pivec), armed with a sock puppet named Ammo and a .38 Winchester named Mr. Heston, are teaching a gun-safety class which devolves into an argument about an incident involving a one-armed pharmacist. Full of swagger when they start, the men, who directly address the crowd as wannabe hunters, lose some of their magnetism once they cease to play for laughs, but the play’s (slightly obvious) point is still well taken.

The women of “Parkersburg” (written by Laura Jacqmin) find themselves in a similar predicament to the astronauts of “Little Birds,” but once the novelty of seeing female coal miners has worn off, there’s little more to this slice of life. The three workers have been directed by their female supervisor to find a new vein or a new job; even their highest ambitions, of going to work in the potentially mythical mine on the other side of the mountain where they can quit work at 5, are enclosed by the present. Its emotional dead end makes it one of the weakest offerings, along with Lucile Lichtblau’s “On the Beach,” a sitcommy story about aging, told by two couples on a public beach. The elders (Gloria Rosen and Anthony Spaldo) are taking advantage of what may be a very short amount of time left together; the newlyweds (Louis Changchien and Autumn Horne) are embarking on their new life with the earnestness of the annoyingly certain. The contrast provided some chuckles, but its ending is too pat for comfort.

The dystopic vision of Lane Bernes’ “New York, New York” is the strongest of the plays, even as its firm commitment to a futuristic world places it outside the aegis of human experience. In the New City, post-President Giuliani’s second term, citizens are segregated by profession and a Metrocard is your ID; an artist and a banker try to buck the system’s official discouragement of cross-cultural commitment, and, per West Side Story, find a place for them both. A crowd-pleasing gag featuring Tony Kushner threatens to derail it, but its daring plot is unexpectedly sweet because of the choice its mismatched lovers make.