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

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Universal Robots

How do you promote art, theater, music, and poetry in a deteriorating, postwar society? How do the dreamers of a nation remain true to their ideals and still connect to the civilians they hope to inspire? Mac Rogers succeeds in answering such questions through a fresh voice of reason and astuteness with his ambitious new play, Universal Robots.

Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis

The year is 1921 and the place is Czechoslovakia. Karel Capek (David Ian Lee) is a playwright with his head in the clouds, privileged enough that he needs not worry about having to earn wages to supplement his art. So instead he and his older sister Josephine (Jennifer Gordon Thomas) spend their time indulging in drink and conversation. One Friday night at a nameless bar, egged on by their pal Vaclavek (Tarantino Smith), these impassioned, bright-eyed Bohemians get heated and personal as they try to resolve being romantics in a bleak, hardworking community. Simultaneously, however, someone has gone beyond simply talking about this social dispute; a local scientist has already begun working on an alternate form of labor to help achieve the human race’s strive for leisure and pursuit of personal dreams. These new creatures, no, not creatures, because they are not living, these automata, sexless and unfeeling, propose endless possibilities for labor production. Their future utilization, however, creates just as much a saving grace for society as it does a threat to its existing human population.

Bringing the witty, wonderful script to life is a true ensemble, one filled with doublecasting. Standout performances include Nancy Siriani as the misanthropic and arguably senile Rossum and Jason Howard in his second role of the evening as Rossum’s robotic prototype Radius. He combines halted, monotone pronunciation with powerful, sentimental expression towards the humans around him. This winningly bridges the gap between his basic functions as a mechanical robot and his constant evolution into something more, providing the audience tender attachment to something not real. The brother and sister duo Karel and Josephine Capek, played by David Ian Lee and Jennifer Gordon Thomas, make a convincing creative team of young idealists who know not the consequences of their aspirations. This is matched pound for pound by their smoldering sibling rivalry, the sort that draws a brooding silence from Josephine when Karel begins a love affair with Rossum’s daughter Helena (Esther Barlow), or that causes Karel’s aggressive aversion to Josephine’s emotional protests when he reprograms the robots for war.

Costume designer Nicky J. Smith took full advantage of the period setting, mixing vintage fabrics such as flannels, tweeds, and corduroy, often in sepia-inspired shades of browns. Mr. Smith also emphasizes the masculine undertones of the play (patriarchy, war, procreation) by outfitting his female characters in skinny ties, wide belts, and shallow, squat hats. Raul Abrego’s minimal set adds a stoicism and sterility to the space that matches the more somber notes of the script; the one piece left onstage is repeatedly reinvented as a president’s desk, laboratory slab, and bar table. This less-is-more stage philosophy synchs well with director Rosemary Andress’ use of doublecasting, providing an added layer of minimalism that works especially well since most of the second roles the actors take on are as robots. The growing desensitivity throughout the play, therefore, surfaces both visually and thematically. Also, the square stage and raised seating creates three intimate fourth walls and one narrow, makeshift offstage area visible through a thin black curtain, limiting mobility and making the actors look and move like robots at times —that is, when they are not actually playing robots. With no intentional upstage, downstage, stage left or stage right, this directorial approach is just another subtle creative choice that adds to the overall effect of the play.

An intelligent play that leaves no room for error, Rogers has created a contemporary gem that urges its audience to ponder whether the need for human contact and interaction can be discarded while still maintaining a collective sense of initiative, justice, and achievement. His alternate telling of the past ninety-plus years illustrates a world where toil and suffering can be handed off to an indifferent, unfeeling working class with astounding ramifications. In fact, this scientific upshot rewrites the entire history of the second half of the Twentieth Century. No, not history — in an age of asexual technology, it’s more like a rewrite of “itstory,” a rewrite with a staggering, gripping conclusion.

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Universal Robots (2 hrs. 45 mins; one intermission)
Manhattan Theater Source (177 MacDougal Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18
Performances (through 3/7): Wed.-Sat. 7:30pm

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Philanderer

A womanizer gets caught between two very different women in this feisty and entertaining production of Shaw's gender-bending and socially critical comedy.

Photo by LAB Photography

Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

With the house seats right on the modest stage, any audience member is in a prime location to see the grimaces and false smiles bandying about in Theater Ten Ten's production of The Philanderer. And it's a good thing too because the cast's overexaggeration of gestures and body movements is exactly what will keep you laughing giddily. George Bernard Shaw's comedy about the evolution of relationships is great fun in the hands of a talented cast that is committed to authenticity, airs, and most pronouncedly, great diction.

With a delivery and tone that sometimes channels Family Guy's Stewie, you'll be able to detect other signs of immaturity in Julian Stetkevych's Leonard Charteris. Jumping from Julia Craven (Tatiana Gomberg), a wealthy and impetuous young woman, to Grace Tranfield (Anne Gill), a wiser, more subdued mate, Charteris delights in choosing promiscuity over marriage and lies over truth until his games turn Julia into a lovesick puppy.

Like The Philanderer's overly rapid pace in the beginning, Charteris does a lot of fast talking to escape committing to either woman, even though Grace, as a “new woman” who is advanced in her strong manner and elevated mind, is more his match. However, you wouldn't think so at first. Wearing an ill-fitting costume and locked in an amorous embrace with Charteris, Grace first appears to be the fleshly character that Julia turns out to be, but as the play progresses, her wit becomes evident. Despite Charteris' attempts to shake Julia at every turn, Stetkevych's zaniness plays well off of Gomberg's petulance, and one can't help but wonder why he won't make it work.

In addition to this lust triangle, there's a gaggle of philosophical heavyweights milling about the Ibsen (Henrik) Club, trying to one up each other while putting their two cents in about the trio's situation. There's Sylvia Craven (Barrie Kreinik), Julia's delightfully cheeky sister who pokes fun at everything and everyone. Their father, Colonel Daniel Craven (Greg Horton), thinks he's dying from a disease that Dr. Paramore (Mickey Ryan) diagnoses him with, but this storyline is far from morose. As the Colonel, Horton elicits more laughs naturally than anyone. Joseph Cuthbertson (Duncan Hazard), the Colonel's rival/friend, is spry and comfortable both as the center of attention and on the fringe of a scene. The Page (Shauna Horn), an unnecessary character, floats in periodically with announcements and deliveries.

Like many of Shaw's plays, The Philanderer executes biting and clever social commentary under the veneer of humor. Under Leah Bonvissuto's sharp direction, the whole cast flexes their acting muscles almost as if in a competition, but there's great, lively interaction between them even if it's sometimes at the expense of chemistry. Although four acts are excessive for 105 minutes, the set changes are smooth. If only gender and social relations were the same.

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The Philanderer (1 hr, 45 min with 1 intermission)
Theater Ten Ten (1010 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10028)
Tickets: $20 212-352-3101 or 866-811-4111(toll free)
Through March 15, 2009

Monday, February 23, 2009

Soul Samurai

Shut yo' mouth--Soul Samurai's only talkin' 'bout theater! Vampire Cowboys Theater, that is, which means there are sexy girls fighting and biting one another, not to mention exaggerated riffs on action-packed film genres: creator Qui Nguyen isn't far off when he says it's Kill Bill meets Shaft. Despite sounding like a B-movie, the cast is A-rated, as is the creative direction (puppets south of Avenue Q) and overall fun.

Photo/Theresa Squire

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Qui Nguyen's latest play is badassss, tagging on two extra s's for Soul Samurai--though they could just as easily be demonstrative of the blaxploitation or symbolic of the very sexy asses involved. And while Nguyen samples from various genres (he accurately cites Kill Bill and Shaft, though there's also a bit of The Warriors's laughable panache), he's only imitating his own examples. All the staples of classic Vampire Cowboys Theatre are here: the introductory video ("Ninja, please!"), the montage (flag-twirling works well for transitions), and the hypertrophied wit ("Being able to kill is cash and yo' ass is broke"). Their hero grows unstoppable when she learns to no longer fear death; Nguyen and his director, Robert Ross Parker (who has to justify all that manic energy), have become bulletproof by throwing all their inhibitions away. (Cue the star-crossed stop-motion tale of an apple samurai girl and an orange ninja boy; there are puppets and pantomimes, too.)

It'd be accurate to say that Soul Samurai is played to the hilt except that this group is working with a pure blade--nothing slows this show down. After an introduction from G.I. Joe action figures Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow, the lights rise on a grindhouse-looking slum, all graffiti and metal shutters. Boss 2K (Sheldon Best) is in the middle of getting the best of Cert (Paco Tolson) when the hero, Dewdrop (Maureen Sebastian) shows up: "I'm the surprise, bitch." One dispatched villain later, and we're cutting to a week ago, as Dewdrop faces off with the pimped out Shogun of Manhattan, Grandmaster Mack (Jon Hoche); ten minutes later, we're tripping back to the real origin story, as Dewdrop's lover, Sally December (a white and sassy afroed Bonnie Sherman), gets killed by 2K and his gang of Longtooths (that'd be vampires). An interlude, "The Completely Uninteresting Tale of Marcus Moon," features a squeaky clean, nervous, and high-pitched Marcus (Best), who explains (as a masked Hoche pantomimes his actions) how he became such a completely interesting killer.

Something's always being flipped, which keeps Nguyen's fight choreography feeling fresh. One minute our heroes are wandering through the pitch-black subway tunnels, the next they're ragging on preachers (think Jon Tuturro in The Big Lebowski meets the Preacher comics); one flashback spoofs Mr. Miyagi as Master Leroy Green (Best) trains Dewdrop, another riffs on Avenue Q as political activist Sally December turns her back on a comically portrayed Puppet Earth (Hoche). Not only is it dazzlingly creative, but it's also never confusing: Sarah Laux and Jessica Wegener's sick costumes make it easy to distinguish bad guys from good guys, and Nick Francone's set and lighting make for clear, quick transitions from location to location (projections provide the details).

And then, of course, there's the acting: Tolson, who has always been the most successfully geeked out Vampire Cowboy (as the incompetent supervillain The Mole, or as the arrogant robot LC-4), gets to play an overconfident b-boy--who now actually has the skills to back his shit up when he says "My name's Cert--as in Death Cert . . . ificate." He's matched by the up-and-coming Best, who not only changes his voice, but actually carries himself differently from role to role. Everybody has their moment: for Hoche, it's the level of expression in his eyes while playing the Masked Marcus; for Sebastian and Sherman, it's their sustained attitude--they're not just posing when they say they're going to "kill you hard, slow, and sexy-like."

At last, Vampire Cowboys Theatre has found the right balance of action and adventure, creativity and control. Soul Samurai isn't just their best show, it's one of the best shows in the city, and until you see it, you'd better just shut yo' mouth.

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Soul Samurai (1hr 40min, no intermission)
HERE Arts Center (145 Avenue of the Americas)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $25.00
Performances (through 3/15): Wed. - Sun. @ 8:30 | Sat. @ 4:00

Friday, February 20, 2009

Five Days in March

In early February, Manhattan was host to the Chelfitsch Theater Company, a young Japanese troupe making a name for itself by specifically capturing the affect of Generation Y-ers in Japan. Though Chelfitsch’s stay in NYC was brief, based on their strong production of Five Days in March, the city will see more of them in the coming seasons.


Review by Amanda Cooper

From plot summary alone, Five Days in March comes across as pornographic: a young man and woman meet at a concert, exchange a few words, and then shack up in a hotel room for five days (in March). These five day also happen to be the first five days of the Iraq War. The play does not show us events. Instead, it is narrated—most scenes are conversations recounted to the audience; only rarely do the actors speak to one another. In addition to the hotel-bound main characters, we meet a number of their friends who are in town, and other individuals who are a degree or two of separation away from the pair.

The production is minimal—from the lack of a set to the subdued staging—but it is well thought out. A screen at the back of the stage shows supertitles (the performers stick with the play’s original language; the supertitles have been translated by Japanese-American playwright Aya Ogawa), and lighting effects. For the most part, the seven performers stay close to the screen, sometimes even leaning, or sitting against it. The actors look age-appropriate—part of the twentysomething Generation Y Chelfitsch intends to capture—and they carry themselves with an affectation familiar to anyone who has spent time with this age group (from any country). They present a detached, fast speech pattern, and low-key outward emotion—though feelings and philosophical emphatics seep through at times.

On the macro level, Five Days in March is a simplistic play. But what makes this show, and writer/director Toshiki Okada, worth watching, is what’s on the micro level: odd character ticks; small, sweet interactions; quick flashes of emotions; and yes, even optimism. All that honesty makes one eager to see more from Chelfitsch. Let’s cross our fingers that a theater like St. Ann’s or P.S. 122 brings them across the Pacific again soon.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Love/Stories (or, But You Will Get Used To It)

How do you stop your post-modern comedy from spinning out of control? Get post-post-modern on it. In his latest work, thirty-something Itamar Moses evolves, David Foster Wallace-like, from a cute couple of modern love stories, into a series of self-referential plays that send up his own act while at the same time validating and enhancing it.

Photo/Joan Marcus

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The danger of writing, after that first initial flash, is that what you create will never be as close to that vision of perfection. Itamar Moses, no stranger to meta-drama and post-modern conventions (in which art comments on itself), must have had one hell of an initial flash, because his collection of one-acts is still pretty brilliant. In Love/Stories (or, But You Will Get Used To It), Moses works through the worries of a post-modern age by, appropriately enough, getting post-post-modern on them.

He begins, simply enough, with a prerecorded introduction, then enters into a "modern" play and a playful monologue before getting into the post-post-modern play-within-a-commentary-within-a-play. After some final thoughts on love as theater and theater as love, he ends with the depressingly sincere "Better never to begin." It's all exceptionally handled by the five-man ensemble of Bats (the repertory actors of The Flea), whose youth allows them to grasp the circuitous and often broken logic of the characters, and Michelle Tattenbaum, whose previous direction of Moses's work has taught her to let the words speak for themselves. (Joe Chapman's lighting non-intrusively juggles the various levels of "post.")

Moses's self-reference allows him to get away with a lot: for instance, the plot of "Chemistry Read," in which a writer tries to avoid casting the guy who stole the girl he wrote the play for, is justified by being demonstrably shallow. "Temping" uses the author's hyperrealistic ramblings--we've all heard halves of telephone conversations like this before--to heighten an otherwise banal breakup. And it's all uphill from there.

The centerpiece, "Authorial Intent," breaks a metaphor up three ways. Theatrically, B warns of overlearning--that is, knowing so much that your enjoyment is no longer pure--and A responds by breaking up with him: the man she's allowed to move in is no longer man she loves ("the you who doesn't live here"). Post-post-modernly, A and B speak only in literal subtext: "DEVICE: Costume Change i.e. 'B returns without his jacket and tie.' OBJECTIVE: Permission To Tell Lengthy Story TACTIC: Insistence Upon Lack of Desire to Tell Lengthy Story." "Realistically," the show has now ended, and the actors, Laurel (Holland) and Michael (Micalizzi), question their policy of not dating actors, wondering if there's perhaps some truth they can share after all--a measure of real knowledge that will transform them without destroying what they feel.

The second half of the title (or, But You Will Get Used To It) comes from "Szinhaz," as a Soviet director equates the strict suffering of his craft with the love he feels for his translator, finding that his consuming love can only adequately be expressed by stripping everything away into a silence. It's a silence that continues into "Untitled Short Play," as the evening's narrator (a bravura performance by John Russo), launches into a series of scene-delaying clarifications, mirroring the author's worry, indecision, and frustration at the unknowability of it all: "...how on earth could some lame scene where two people just talk to each other get more than thimble-deep into anything that remotely resembles anything that even comes within a country mile of an approximation of the barest outline of the feelings that gave rise to the need to write this..."

He has, of course, answered his own question--if it were ever really a question--with Love/Stories. (Or, But You Will Regret Not Seeing This If You Don't Go Now.)

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Love/Stories (or, But You Will Get Used To It)
(1hr 30min)
The Flea Theater (41 White Street)

Tickets (212-352-3101): $20.00

Performances (through 3/9): Fri. & Sat. @ 9 | Sun. & Mon. @ 7 | Sun. @ 3

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Chuck.Chuck.Chuck.

The title of Immediate Medium's latest work, Chuck.Chuck.Chuck. is apt, for they have captured the text and the sound of William Falkner's As I Lay Dying, in which the Bundren family self-destructs while attempting to bury the matriarch of their family. JJ Lind's aesthetics are as playfully fluid as the various narrative styles of the novel, as is his cast, a bunch of stone-cold-serious jokers.

Photo/JJ Lind

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Chuck. Chuck. Chuck. is the sound Cash's adze makes as he cuts a coffin for his mother, Addie, in William Falkner's As I Lay Dying. It's a fitting title for Immediate Medium's adaptation, for they've not only brought the words of this classic family drama to life, but they've brought the sounds to life, too--even dead Addie's, with her whispering voiceover, and the murmuring brooks of human worry. Going one step further, Rob Ramirez actually turns Faulkner's stream of consciousness into a literal one, with projected lines from the novel snaking down from that centerpiece of a coffin. There's singing and dancing, too, much like Elevator Repair Service's adaptation of The Sound and the Fury, though it's not experimental so much as it's a necessary tact for wrestling Faulkner's prose to the ground without stifling it.

There's never the slightest risk of that here; Immediate Medium's ensemble work is superb, as is their aesthetic cohesiveness: Maki Takenouchi's set is a dirt-filled sandbox ringed with lights and rigged with laundry wires, Max Dana hides lights inside of buckets of water or beside the heat lamps so that each scene always feels distinct and a little private, and Suzie Chung's costuming strikes a nice balance between elegance and the requisite grime of this country family. If anything stands in the way of Chuck.Chuck.Chuck., it is Faulkner himself, whose narrative of the Bundren family's disasterous (and reflective) journey to bury Addie (LeAnn Lind), is sometimes overly oblique. Director JJ Lind combats this--a death that the doctor, Peabody, describes as "merely a function of the mind"--by remaining physical: Vardaman (Liz Vacco) guts a fish, Jewel (Megan Camisi) isolates himself from the family by drawing and redrawing his beloved horse on the exposed brick wall, Cash (Max Dana) makes his sawing into a workman's music, and Dewey Dell (Siobhan Towey) scurries about, keeping her brothers in line even as she frets about her secret pregnancy.

The big, action-packed climaxes of the novel--a perilous river crossing, a blazing fire--come to life in swirls of projections, dancing, and live music (provided by Ben Vershbow, Robin Aigner, Brady Jenkins, Suzie Chung, and Caroline Shaw, sometimes doing nothing more than stamping their feet). If there are exaggerated moments, like Vershbow's winking rapist, MacGowan, or Hugh Sinclair's drunken patriarch, Anse, it's only because Immediate Medium doesn't have space to let you reread and recontextualize the chapters: it all has to exist in the moment. And exist it does, from the tender way Dana's voice breaks in an otherwise technical account of the thirteen-step coffin-building method to the way Michael Rushton's Darl slowly grows more and more erratic, going mad, but rationally so.

Some cuts have been made, some text has been reshuffled or overlapped, but it feels as if it's all there, and that's what matters. For in the end, all there is for any of us is that final sound.

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Chuck.Chuck.Chuck (90 min.)
The Collapsable Hole (146 Metropolitan Avenue)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $12.00
Performances (through 2/28): Thurs. - Sat. @ 8:30 (except 2/21)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Astronome: A Night at the Opera

If Richard Foreman's work were ever able to be summarized in three lines or less, it would no longer really be Foreman. It's hard to say where his latest--a collaboration with avant-garde soundscraper John Zorn--fits in to his eclectic canon. Let it just be known that for all the vibrating, waggling, creepy voiceovers, oddball costumes, madhouse set, and overall absurdity, it does fit: a style all its own.

Photo/Paula Court

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

There's a second subtitle to Richard Foreman's latest work of theater, Astronome: A Night at the Opera, a collaboration with the avant-garde composer John Zorn. That title is the parenthetical "A Disturbing Initiation" (which happens to be especially accurate for me, a first time Foremanner), but that's not a warning, just as the complimentary earplugs aren't actually neccessary. It's a statement of fact--something that may not belong in a review of this almost text-less, symbolic work of theater (can it be called a play?). If Zorn's piece--the Tazmanian Devil doing a punk show--is meant to provide catharsis, then it is Foreman's half that is taking it on, showing how "human beings [are] buffeted by forces that invade human life." The result, which seems more directed at the actors than the performers, is one hell of an initiation. "Stage fright" is ominously, constantly whispered by Foreman's disembodied voice, and this is certainly one way to deal with it.

Textual analysis seems a little pointless, though, given the way in which Hebrew and English letters are spiderwebbed across the set, alchemical diagrams come wheeling out, and a woman in all black (Deborah Wallace) keeps attempting to erase an already clean blackboard. It's also hard to put a straight face on actors going in and out of a giant nostril and mouth, something that seems reminiscent of Double Dare, or the long-tongued lounge "singer," a green-skinned Tony Clifton (Jamie Peterson). What's necessary, by Foreman's rules--"I don't see it, you don't see it, nobody sees it except the man stumbling upon it quite by accident"--is to just experience it. Watch the symmetrical moments, the tightly choreographed shaking and collapsing. See the blinking photo flashes, the swinging pendulum, the out-of-place bras. Listen through the throat-clearing music.

"It's very easy to choose the negative path to avoid things that are painful," continues Foreman. His play isn't painful, nor really disturbing, and there are enough oddly wonderful and curious things to fascinate the intrepid theatergoer. But since we're talking about stage fright, isn't Astronome a word of advice to the artist? This is what you can choose, it says, don't avoid it.

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Astronome: A Night at the Opera (1 hour)
The Ontological Theater @ St. Mark's Church (131 East 10th Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $25 ($35 on Saturday)
Performances (through 4/5): Tues., Thurs. - Sun. @ 8

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Wendigo

Eric Sanders cuts to the bone of Algernon Blackwood's 1910 short horror story and Matthew Hancock's direction creates a minimalist smooth atmosphere. But for all the slashing of text, there's still too much description. That the cast nails it (particularly Nick Merritt) only makes us howl for more.


Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Eric Sander's adaptation of Algernon Blackwood's The Wendigo, a spooky short story from 1910, starts with a killer line: "Our hunting party brought back no moose that year." It's a far cry better than Blackwood's clunkier version, and a hint of just how streamlined the Vagabond Theatre Ensemble's production is going to be (a little too slim, at only forty-five minutes). Matthew Hancock's direction helps to smooth things over, too: his actors have accents, but they don't exaggerate them. (Comedy is not the intended effect of this piece.)

In fact, the cast is generally terrific, with Nick Merritt smoothly transitioning from the task of "ominous narrator" to that of "excited novice hunter" and Kurt Uy's Defago slipping from a confident if somewhat brusque guide to that of a terrified, superstitious drunk. As Hank, Graham Outerbridge has the gruff behavior of a mercenary leader down cold, and Erik Gratton, with his deep radio voice, uses perfect enunciation to emphasize Doc's rationality.

However, despite Brian Tovar's excellent lighting (pinpoints piercing the blackness), the strict minimalism of Nicholas Vaughan's set (black poles hang like dead trees) and Gino Barzizza's static, projected backdrops prevent the show from capturing anything atmospheric. Candice Thompson nails the period costumes, but she's left threadbare conjuring up a wendigo. Only M. L. Dogg's calm, constant, cricketing sound design remains in the moment, and even that is undercut by the occasional use of generic thriller music.

That the play ends up looking a bit like The Blair Wendigo Project isn't necessarily a bad thing, and the production is constantly elevated by the careful culling of Blackwood's original descriptions. The smoke-lit darkness may not be terrifying, but it is certainly engaging, particularly when Hancock grounds the text in action--the ominous sound of Defargo's whetstone would make a Foley artist proud. If you ever see a wendigo, run; until then, you might as well walk to see The Wendigo.

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The Wendigo (40 minutes)
Medicine Show Theatre (549 West 52nd Street)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $10.00
Performances (through 2/28): Thurs. - Sat. @ 8 | Sun. @ 3

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Thoroughly Modern Millie

The Gallery Players’ staging of this Tony Award winner is just a bonbon. But who says musicals have to be good for you?


BY ELLEN WERNECKE

When Thoroughly Modern Millie, a musical based on a British hit and envisioned as a Julie Andrews vehicle, hit movie screens in 1967, its conceit of a jazz baby trying to go straight just long enough for her to meet and land a rich man was already part of the past. Its 2002 Broadway resetting (involving new music and lyrics as well as an edited book), even further from the Jazz Age, needed heroine Millie Dilmount’s drive for laughs even more. It’s not that the notion of gold-diggers is that far from our national consciousness—we still have TV’s The Bachelor, after all—but Millie’s conviction (that to be “modern” is to make her marriage read like a balance sheet) is just as much of a joke as any show-tune anthem declaring that the character will never fall in love. (There are at least two of those songs here, “What Do I Need With Love” for the poor schemer who falls for Millie, and “Jimmy," her anthem for him.)

When Brooklyn’s Gallery Players try to go serious with Thoroughly Modern Millie, pausing to emphasize one character’s moral lesson or another’s hasty mistake, the show slows down without gaining any gravitas. But overall, it’s as light on its feet as its jitterbugging cast. Director Neal J. Freeman shows off their stuff to perfect effect by letting the production flow from scene to scene, a move that also highlights how much the company does without a Great White Way-sized budget. The song-and-dance number “The Speed Test” is a showcase for the tapping talents of the chorus as well as the “Modern Major-General”-style comedic timing of Andy Planck, who plays Millie’s boss. Allison Luff, as Millie, has clearly studied Sutton Foster’s Broadway performance of the role, but it doesn’t break her stride as the stubborn “modern” from Kansas; her friend Dorothy (Amy Grass) is just this side of shrill, but Millie quickly surrounds herself with more captivating characters like the international superstar, Muzzy van Hossmere (a deliciously grandiose Debra Thais Evans).

Unfortunately, Millie is burdened with a white-slavery subplot that, besides employing an ethnic caricature in a not very funny way, is also the one element that keeps the show from being family-friendly. (To begin with, no one uses the term “white slavery” any more, so good luck explaining that to little Dick and Jane.) Justine Campbell-Elliott (as the predatory Mrs. Meers) dons an Asian accent as a means of disarming the girls under her care at the Hotel Priscilla, but it’s too reminiscent of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and even thoroughly, shall we say, un-modern. As a director, Freeman should have turned down the caricaturizing in order to allow the audience to focus on her henchmen, Ching Ho and Bun Foo (Roy Flores and Jay Paranada), who are funny enough even before the manually operated subtitles come out. Luckily, this sour chord doesn’t distract too much from the fun of following Millie and her jazz-crazy friends.

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Through Feb. 22 at 199 14th Street in Brooklyn. For tickets and more information, visit galleryplayers.com.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Great Hymn of Thanksgiving/Conversation Storm

Although the ability to ignore reality over a luxurious dinner and the knack for using torture are unfortunately unoriginal things in this country, the Nonsense Company's duet of one-acts is still terrifyingly original. They put the "fun" back in "fungible."



Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Normally, when something as unique as Great Hymn of Thanksgiving/Conversation Storm comes around, it takes very little time for the derivatives to start piling on. Granted, theater is a far less immediate medium than television, but while it's terrific that this work still feels original a year after the '08 Frigid Festival (and its two halves have existed since '03 and '06), it's also a shame, surely, that not enough people have seen this production to pilfer from it.

Then again, there's the fact that stealing the Nonsense Company's technique is pretty damn hard; they, unlike some of the material they glibly discuss, are not fungible. Their first piece "Great Hymn of Thanksgiving," is aptly subtitled "for three speaking percussionists," and requires Ryan Higgins, Andy Gricevich, and Rick Burkhardt to follow sheet music for, among other things, mastication, wine-glass harmonics, and the plate-scraping rhythms of an errant fork. Parents: tell your children they can play with their food, so long as their mischief is synchronized and politically charged, for the monotonous cowbell-garblings of the cast are extracted from the Army Prayer Manual, world news reports, and Rae Armantrout's poetry. It is a clear collision of our hypercasual comforts with a distant reality: we cannot even imagine killing our own turkey, let alone visualize the charred casualties of war.

Without pause--for when is there ever a break in life?--the show segues into the second act, "Conversation Storm," a more conventional play only in the sense that there are characters, that they speak lines, and that there are scenes. But Burkhardt's writing here is just as inventive: he gives life to another too-casual behavior, the "thought experiment," by forcing Hugh (Higgins) to "out torture" Alec (Burkhardt) in a ticking timebomb game of "Do You Talk?" This isn't the audience-approved stuff of 24, but rather a boundary-pushing extrapolation: "You can either believe me," says the terrorist/victim, his testicles already crushed by a bathroom stall door, "or you can fuck my son." The one-act is performed lightning-fast, jumping forward and back between scenes--even rewriting some of them--as it mixes comedy and drama in an attempt to parse the concept that "torture is fine as long as we don't enjoy it too much."

Burkhardt and company succeed and fail in this endeavor: for all the unsettling screeches and scratches of the first act and the unpleasant scenarios and scares of the second, the performance is still primarily enjoyed--if not too much, then just enough.

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Great Hymn of Thanksgiving/Conversation Storm (75 min., no intermission)
IRT (154 Christopher Street, #3B)
Tickets (www.nonsensecompany.com): $15.00
Performances (through 2/15): Wed. - Sat. @ 8 | Sun. @ 3

Friday, February 06, 2009

Cornbury: The Queen's Governor

We may never know why it took Cornbury: The Queen’s Governor over three decades to receive its world premiere, but the virtuosic performance of David Greenspan, and the subversive thrill of the character he plays, makes it worth the wait.

Reviewed by Jason Fitzgerald



“I am civilization!” So announces the self-congratulatory Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, in Cornbury: The Queen’s Governor, a fanciful recounting of Hyde’s royal governorship of New York from 1702–1708. In the hands of playwrights William M. Hoffman and the late Anthony Holland, Hyde, whose reputed cross-dressing and sexual philandering is still up for debate in historical circles, becomes a symbol of social progress, moral freedom, and good fashion. A combination of Wilde’s aestheticism and Whitman’s inclusivity, Hyde embodies the revolutionary promises of the gay liberation movement, from whose energies the play sprung when it was written in the mid-1970s. To complete the parallel with the post-Stonewall, sexual-revolution culture wars, Hoffman and Holland set Hyde against the Puritan Dutch, who lived in New York at the time and resisted the libertinism of their English rulers. In this example of what Hoffman calls “revanchist revisionist history, or history as…it should have been,” the Lord Cornbury becomes a queer comic-book hero.

As played by David Greenspan, Hyde flutters around the stage in a revolving fashion show of dazzling, overwrought outfits, most of them dresses. As a performer, Greenspan (Some Men, The Beebo Brinker Chronicles) emphasizes style and gesture over psychology: his characters float above the stage in an aesthetic nether region that can make everyone else onstage appear foolishly earnest. These talents serve Cornbury in abundance, as in scene after scene Hyde knocks his enemies off their high horses not by argument but by turning them into contrivances, thereby dismissing them. To the repulsed insults of the pastor’s son, Greenspan faces the audience and speaks with a feigned coquettish whine: “Comprendre, c’est pardonner. I can scarce accept your proposal for I am married.” By showing how easily the young man’s earnestness can apply to a melodramatic love scene, Greenspan punctures the balloon of fundamentalist sincerity.

This project of deconstruction by theatrical silliness was once exemplified by the late Charles Ludlam’s Theatre of the Ridiculous, to whose aesthetic Cornbury owes an obvious debt. Stage designer Mark Beard is wise to construct a set of flimsy flats and curtains, so that the whole production yields to the meta-theatrical impulses of its main character (who watches the set unfurl at the show’s beginning, like a stage manager). And director Tim Cusack is wise to cast Everett Quinton, Ludlam’s partner and heir, as the Puritan pastor. But the rest of the ensemble struggles with the self-conscious style of the Ridiculous, despite glimpses of success in Ashley Bryant (as Hyde’s African slave) and Julia Campanelli (as his besotted wife). Hyde is never presented with a worthy adversary, and even Quinton, who works overtime to turn his character into a winking, “Dr. Evil”-like caricature, winds up unbalancing the production by drawing attention away from the pastor’s wife, who is meant to be Hyde’s true nemesis.

So Greenspan steals the show, just as Edward Hyde, at the play’s end, claims the spirit of New York City as his own. When the governor is offstage, we yearn for his return, not an inappropriate response given the politics of the play. But as a theatrical experience, it reveals the potential of Hoffman and Holland’s play while leaving space for a more definitive production in the future.


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Cornbury: The Queen's Governor (2 hours with intermission)
Hudson Guild Theatre (441 West 26th St)
www.cornburytheplay.com or 212-352-3101 ($18)
Through Feb 8: Sat 2pm, Sat 8pm, Sun 5pm

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Hamlet

A condensed Shakespearean tragedy...in Japanese.

Reviewed by Caitlin Fahey

Shakespeare's versatile plotlines have long transcended cultural boundaries; his works have been translated and adapted all over the world. The Japanese are no exception; they have brought Kabuki and Noh to the Bard. However, director/choreographer Kenji Kararasaki's attempt to make the grief and agony of Hamlet visible ends up being lost in translation.

Part of that has to do with compression: the five-act play is drastically shortened here, running only 75 minutes without intermission. It also has to do with language: in Japanese, the beautiful meter and imagery of Hamlet's monologues disappears, and what's left is a group of actors yelling and jerking across the stage as if having seizures. Even avid Shakespeare fans who know Hamlet back and forth (like this reviewer) will find Karasaki's version difficult to follow.

Yoshiaki Takano's video design may boldly display the names of the lead characters as they enter, but the "designs" themselves are no better than a juvenile PowerPoint presentation.

Hamlet finally gets it right by turning the chilling climax into a nightmarish dance for Claudius (Sho Tohno); however, by this time, the choreography has been so overdone that there is nothing new left to strike a nerve among the audience. Yoko Tomabechi's light, playful dancing makes her an ideal Ophelia, but these movements are far and few between. What's left too closely resembles a parody of Japanese culture.

The space at La MaMa sets the tone of the melancholy tragedy, and every inch of the theater is used well. The music, combined with lighting design by Jin Nakayama, helps to enhance the prince's brooding feelings. Sadly, by the end of the performance, even the brevity of the play feels like eternity.

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Hamlet (75 Minutes, no intermission)
Theatre of the World (74A E Fourth Street)
Tickets $25; Students $20
Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Sunday 2:30 p.m. through February 8.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Melvillapalooza: Voyage A

To acutely interpret Herman Melville, notorious for his longwinded prose, is no easy feat. To adapt him for the stage in sixty minutes or less is divine.

Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis

The Metropolitan Playhouse’s Fourth Annual Literature Festival focuses on the American writer Herman Melville. Through poems, staged readings, and musical interpretations, his work and personal history comes to life. This evening’s entertainment, Voyage A, featured a scripted adaptation of Melville’s Billy Budd and a playful slant on the conception of Moby Dick.

Scott Barrow’s take on Billy Budd aims to do justice to a story of adventure and honor by staging it with sensitivity and spark. The plot centers around Billy, a proud and na├»ve sailor who volunteers—at sword-point—to be part of Claggart’s crew. As Billy, Justin Gibbs brings out the sweet sincerity of a boy on the brink of manhood. Bud’s habit of nervous stuttering while denying an accusation or admitting a wrongdoing completes Mr. Gibbs’ delightful performance. He is well met by Andrew Gruesetskie’s chill-inducing menace as Claggart. The opposing morals these two characters represent reach their tipping point when a murder occurs on deck and a decision must be made how to prosecute the offender. With no law in place nor judge to enforce it, the men aboard must decide for themselves how to resolve the situation at hand. The story reaches an unexpected conclusion, and Mr. Barrow’s compact, well-paced adaptation brings to life the challenges and consequences of determining someone else’s fate, and the haunting retributions of such reckonings.

Dan Evans takes a different approach with The Archangel: glib historical inaccuracy. In this original work, Herman Melville (Dave Powers) is a modest, uncertain man bound by writer’s block. On the brink of beginning his great masterpiece, Melville, played by a magnetic Mr. Powers, paces the stage and performs a soliloquy of his neurotic insecurities to Nell, a past-her-prime prostitute and bar owner (LuLu LoLo). Without knowing much else about what he wants to write he discloses his allegory of the great white whale to Nell, who can’t believe her ears and calls for a second opinion. Out comes Delilah (an outrageous and shrill Amy Fulgham), a prostitute possessed by an archangel and thereby controlled by a great white force of her own. Though she’s resistant at first, she soon serves as interpreter between the archangel and those in Nell’s bar in an attempt to cure Melville of his writer’s block and thrust him into a creative frenzy. Joined by humorous cameos including a smug Walt Whitman (Laurence Waltman) and an impassioned Henry David Thoreau (Christopher Norwood), this lighthearted comedy takes just enough creative license with historical figures and events to make for an absurd and unforgettable night.

If Voyage A is any indication of the rest of Melvillapalooza, then anchors aweigh: these plot twists and character idiosyncrasies that put the life and works of Melville in a new light, not just meeting our expectations, but exceeding them.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Judgment of Paris

Not only does Company XIV’s definition-defying dance/theater production of The Judgment of Paris transport, surprise and entertain with the ease of a blown kiss, but it is peopled by brilliant, engaging artists and is cut from a cloth that is entirely new, risky, and delicious.


Reviewed by Lyssa Mandel

Every once in a while, theater presents the fulfilling gift it’s capable of: it transports, surprises and entertains. Not only does Company XIV’s definition-defying dance/theater production of The Judgment of Paris achieve all of these things with the ease of a blown kiss, but it is peopled by brilliant, engaging artists and is cut from a cloth that is entirely new, risky, and delicious.

Housed in the appropriate environs of the shabby-chic Duo Theatre (here resmbling a Moulin Rouge-esque French brothel), Paris cross-breeds the mythical tale of Helen of Troy with gorgeous baroque ballet choreography. The result is a decadent, indulgent delight with the sinful aesthetic of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting.

Prince Paris of Troy (the dapper Seth Numrich, who serves as the Don Juan/carnival barker/MC of the show) must choose to give the Golden Apple of his favor to one of three feminine powers that be. Forgoing Hera and Athena, he chooses Aphrodite, the brassy, voluptuous Gioia Marchese (who is also the Madame of the house). And so the events of the story are triggered. Paris falls in love with Helen (the poised and mysterious Elyssa Doyle), only to discover she’s already married. The besotted prince steals her away from her husband in the night, sparking the Trojan War.

The ensemble of six, all nuanced performers and marvelous dancers, rarely leave the stage. Instead, they morph fluidly from scene to scene, changing costumes and characters as the production requires, creating the theatrical equivalent of a magic show. With the wide-ranging symphony of musical selections, the piece is like a live collage. Leigh Allen uses the lighting to conjure up gorgeous, stark tableaux for the performers and Olivera Gajic’s costumes create the effect of an exquisite, expensive period piece. The whole production is a masterful example of creative collaboration, helmed by choreographer/director Austin McCormick, a ballet scholar who also conceived the piece.

It would have been enough to watch the ladies basking in the can-can music, cooing and jeering at each other and the audience. But the mythical storyline deepens and grounds the production, making it more than just a feathery, if highly enjoyable, romp at an old-fashioned Parisian gentlemen’s club. Between the graceful, quietly intense ballet interpretation of the Trojan War and the myriad suggestive jokes and bosoms on display, high art and lowbrow raunch are corseted together in the span of one bewitching hour.