Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Nature Theater of Oklahoma is making a phenomenal habit out of how we take the world around us for granted. With Poetics: a ballet brut, they showed us the elegance of our everyday movements, upending our perspective of the theater itself to do so (the audience sat on the stage). With No Dice, they recontextualized ordinary phone conversations by doing them in "dinner theater" style, hamming and thereby hammering the actual words and rhythms into our consciousness.
Now, with Rambo Solo, Pavol Liska & Kelly Copper have seized upon company member Zachary Oberzan's obssession with Rambo (he made his own film Flooding with Love for the Kid), and in doing so, have recreated and refocused the idea of a "memory" play. Guided by audio cues and synchronized video footage of three "rehearsals" of this story (enacted within Oberzan's 220 sq. ft. apartment), every night is a recreation of Oberzan's original stream-of-consciousness remembering of reading David Morell's book, Rambo: First Blood. By emphasizing every awkward "um," every breathtaking pause (including the actor's bathroom break), and the naked honesty of Oberzan's self-correcting, the show not only avoids the Hollywood bullshit of the film, but manages to appropriate the theatrical bullshit so that while things are obviously staged and rehearsed, they are also honest and fresh.
Such an approach is important for the audience walking a mile--or in this case, sitting storybook style on a shag carpet--through Oberzan's memory. For all the twists of his recollection of plot, he's taken an even more interesting twist on the actual narrative, giving equal weight to John Rambo and his "nemesis," Sheriff Will Teasle. In one of the goofier and stagier bits, Oberzan pulls two audience members up on stage for the climactic finale between these two kindred souls, war veterans both, but he's able to sell this--and other bits, like the gunfire of M&Ms--by being open to the "pervasive love" that "floods" the novel. In fact, that's what distinguishes Rambo Solo: it's so obviously a passion project, performed so deadpan that it has to be serious, despite the constant awkward Office-like comedy.
Though there's no comma in the title, there's equal weight given to the "solo" part of the show, primarily in the way it evokes the imagination. Though the on-stage Oberzan mostly limits himself to a narrow, raised walkway, his three video-shadows pace around his apartment. His shower rod shows the sort of torturous crucifixion Rambo underwent in Vietnam; his bathtub becomes a riverbed (a blanket represents its mud). He hangs from his lofted bed as if he's on the cliff; he splashes water from the sink as if he's caught in a flashflood. When he cooks an owl, he's really just warming up leftovers in the microwave. On the one hand, these effects remind us of how different we all are, but on the other, they also show a weird sort of everyday empathy, and once again, the Nature Theater of Oklahoma has boldly caught us taking things for granted.
Rambo Solo (85 min, no intermission)
Soho Rep (46 Walker Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $25 (through 4/12) and $35 (through 4/19)
Performances (through 4/19): Wed., Thurs., Sat., Sun. @ 7:30
Monday, March 30, 2009
Michael Hardart and Rafael Jordan / Photograph by Steven Lembark
You’ll find your seats to Power by following the splintered beams of flashlights strewn about the theater. Once seated, artistic director Alex Roe will slowly click off each flashlight and, in complete darkness, ask us to silence all electronic devices. It is the first of many sensory cues that alert and prepare the audience that something is about to happen. It’s a reminder that electricity plays the principle role in Power: it’s not just a technical commodity. Tonight, it brings the early 20th century to life and takes the audience on a cross-country journey.
When the lights rise in earnest, it’s at a clothing factory in the New York Metro area, 1935 in the midst of a blackout. Panicked telephone conversations interweave and interrupt one another, describing buns stuck burning in the oven thanks to a stopped conveyor belt, the heat cut short in an apartment with a sick infant, etc. Despite these crises, in the scenes to follow modern urbanites continue to rely on electricity in their everyday use. The public demand rises so much that the electric company, once a private corporate enterprise, expands into a universal monopoly. Maintaining the latest household trend suddenly grows quite expensive, and the energy-conscious consumer is born. This sets the tone for the rest of the play: the struggle between the penny-pinching everyman and the slicked-back company tycoon.
The visual tone of the play is that of a “living newspaper,” so designer and director Mark Harborth reduces the set to a table and handful of chairs, and plasters newspapers across the stage and walls. Harborth’s use of the open stage also serves to disorient and engage, conjuring the hustle and bustle of the 1930s newsroom. The contrast to all this black-and-white is set by the lighting, designed by Maryvel Bergen. Covered and uncovered, hanging and bolted, bulbs blink from all corners of the stage, offering entrance cues and scene changes. This creates crisp order in a play overflowing with action and dialogue. Adding to these segmented mini-breaks is the soft, nostalgic fade-in music, which adds a sense of relief from all the visual goings-on by appealing to another sense.
Our anchor in the midst of all this action is the single-cast narrator, Michael Hardart. Using a campy tone, he sets the audience at ease and acknowledges his role as an outsider, especially when he calls out “Hey, Valentine!” to the stage manager (Valentine Amartey) asking for lights. This attitude allows him to move beyond the fourth wall without taking advantage of it, and he slides in and out of the play with grace and ease. His costars share a similar comfort jumping in and out of character, especially the three women in the cast (Sidney Fornter, Jenny Greeman, Toya Nash), who transform effortlessly from shrewd housewives managing a domestic budget to a precocious daughter asking her father where electricity comes from. Their acting overcomes the script’s tough-sounding business jargon, and onstage they hold their own with commanding presence, matching the engaging confidence of their male counterparts. When the actresses join them to play men they are just as seamless, coyly trotting offstage in heels and a skirt only to don a tie and sport coat and return in the blink of an eye as an angry stockholder demanding an explanation.
It would be too easy to make a literal allusion of the play’s title to its content, though. Yes, the need for electricity in a time of growing urban sprawl gives the play its spine. However, this play also brings together complex issues of private enterprise versus government control, the state of the public interest in the wake of a corporate monopoly, the say a stakeholder has in the cost of labor production, and even the exact definition of a kilowatt hour, among many others. It’s about a more subtle, individualized sense of power. It questions the level of power tax-paying citizens have in the decisions of their community and the unequivocal distribution of power to them all regardless of regional location or occupation. Skip the daily expense of a Wall Street Journal this week: for roughly the same amount of money, Power will give you a better return on your investment.
Power (1 hr. 45 mins; one 10-minute intermission)
Metropolitan Playhouse (220 East 4th Street)
Tickets [212-352-3101] ($20, $15 students and seniors)
Performances [through 4/12]: (Wed.-Sat. @ 8pm; Sats. and Suns. @ 3pm)
Friday, March 27, 2009
Reviewed by Lyssa Mandel
Freud would have a field day. The very dark, very French, bourgeois and bohemian family playground of Jean Cocteau’s brilliant Les Parents Terribles, entitled Indiscretions in this sharp Jeremy Sams translation (presented by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble), is a savory death-match of revenge, calculation, incestuous leanings, blind innocence, ennui, high drama and a healthy serving of laughs, cringes and schadenfreude for the hungry audience.
Cocteau’s conniving characters comprise a family whose neuroses feed upon each other to alarming but fascinating effect. Matriarch Yvonne is a self-dramatizing, languid whiner of a woman; her husband, George, colludes with her indulgence by being a distant wuss. He’s been displaced in his wife’s affections by his own son, the 22-year-old, sweetly naive man-child Michael, who falls into the arms of his mother and gives her the attention fix she needs (without realizing how disturbingly Oedipal it is). Orbiting the realm of middle-class slovenliness is Yvonne’s sister--the cunning, tidy, and jilted Leo--who has by default been relegated to housekeeper as the only functioning adult among them.
The household status quo (one can hardly call it “order”) is upset when Michael returns home from a night out and announces he’s fallen in love with a girl, Madeleine. Yvonne is thrown into a tantrum over this so-called betrayal. George discovers with dismay that he’s been having an affair with the same Madeleine his son is after. Leo, in the interest of preventing a family implosion, helps strategize a way to break up the young lovebirds.
As you might imagine from the soap-opera circumstances, calamity ensues. But thanks to Cocteau’s complex and nuanced script and the actors’ tenacious and serious commitment to their characters, Indiscretions cuts remarkably deep, going much further than the easy laughs of bad melodrama. The Sams translation brings not only clarity and naturalness but also a quintessentially European sensibility to the text without ever going overboard. Director Jonathan Silverstein tackles the dense, shocking comedy with fluidity and admirable balance. Even the heightened affectation of Mid-Atlantic speech and grandiose gestures favored by Yvonne and Leo are made to work: ridiculousness suits these characters, and in the mouths of such able performers, the pitiful disaster of these shabby-chic lives shoots straight to the gut.
Melissa Miller imbues the charming Madeleine with gentle fervor and steadfast love, and William Connell makes for a puppy-like Michael. Gayton Scott’s Yvonne is a flailing force of nature, convincingly undone by her obsession with her only son. Scott’s portrayal brings moments of sympathy to a generally preposterous character. As George, Dan Cordle is ever-defeated and defenseless in the face of his steamroller wife. And Jan Leslie Harding’s Leo has a quietly boiling ferocity that allows her iciness to melt at crucial moments with slow, measured flourishes.
The central theme is that les parents are, naturally, children themselves. The characters and performances are sweeping and larger than life--suited to the play, yet still truthful. In Cocteau’s alternate universe, cruel and complicated equate to delicious and ultimately satisfying.
Friday, March 20, 2009
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Colin McKenna's The Secret Agenda of Trees starts with an image of desolate realism, nicely accented by Ben Kato's beaten-down living room set. He then conjures a desperate charm, as the roguish Jack (Michael Tisdale) spars with a steely single-mother, Maggie (Lillian Wright): "Move on," she says, "I ain't what you're looking for." "If I see something better, I will," he replies. "But I doubt I will." Even Maggie's precocious teenage daughter, Veronica (Reyna de Courcy) fails to deter him, so she lowers her guard, giving way to that deep-rooted need for a connection, the poetry at the heart of McKenna's tenderly tragic writing, the stuff that asks "Why do trees claw so desperately at the sky?" and replies "Because they have nowhere else to go."
This portion of McKenna's work aches with truth, and scenes like these are the finest part of the play. Of course, the hint of sorrow is in the air--and posted on the wall, where pictures of Maggie's soldier of a son, Dixon (Brian Reilly) hang in a sort of unspoken limbo. The scent grows stronger when Maggie reveals her secret to Jack--she's a meth addict--and he, working knee-deep in the blood of a slaughterhouse's kill floor, is only too happy to join. Saddest of all is Veronica, so isolated that she has created a glamorous alter ego for herself--Lulu of the Pink Wings--and dreams of the dangerous soon-to-be gangbanger, Carlos (Christian Navarro): "I want to lick the tattoos right off your dark arms." All three get their wishes, but those wishes come with reality checks, especially for Maggie, who is terrified that her daughter will follow in her footsteps.
So far as realism goes, Michael Kimmel's direction nails it. It's one thing for de Courcy's Veronica to show her own steel when she demands cigarettes from Jack; it's another for Tisdale's Jack to reveal so much about his own character by so casually sharing. By maximizing the squalor--right down to references to "Lucky Charms breath"--he strikes the right balance for the giddying moments of escapism when Maggie and Jack light up and let loose. Likewise, by emphasizing Veronica's childishness, he's able to capture the sadness of a daughter being forced to care for her mother--a remarkable feat considering that McKenna's "dramatic" dialogue is so banal: "I don't know who you are!" "I'm your mother." "No you ain't."
However, the rest of the play falters, both in acting and writing. Veronica's dreams of her brother, Dixon, are forced attempts at conflict, and McKenna's justification for them--adding additional fantasy monologues--is unnecessary. Thankfully, de Courcy acts the hell out of them, using the opportunity to sell her character's age rather than the specific text. Navarro, however, has no such luck: every "yo" seems forced, and the whole punk attitude is as ill-fitting as his baggy jeans. Carlos is already underwritten as a character--just fuel for the fire; as played here, he all but disappears. On the other hand, Reilly, who is playing a ghost, goes way over the top--too present for his absence to really be felt. He'd do well to take a few cues from Wright and Tisdale, two fine actors who distill all of that extra energy into the flutter of a hopeful eye or the relief of sitting in a comfortable chair.
Thankfully, The Secret Agenda of Trees doesn't really branch far beyond its central three characters. Moreover, by putting down such deep roots for those three, it makes that clawing at the sky all the more heartbreaking. And that's worth putting on the agenda.
The Secret Agenda of Trees (2hrs, 1 intermission)
The Wild Project (195 East 3rd Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00
Performances (through 4/11): Wed. - Sat. @ 8
Thursday, March 19, 2009
Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis
As a poetry consultant for the Library of Congress, Elizabeth Bishop (Anne Fizzard) is young, tentative, and yet to come into her own creatively. She has also been assigned the duty of visiting Ezra Pound (Angus Hepburn) from time to time. The older, uninhibited Pound has rejected society as much as it has rejected him, banished to a mental hospital instead of put on trial for treason. As time goes by Pound looks forward to Bishop coming round, even affectionately calling her “Liz Bish.” Bishop, in turn, brings him tokens and news from the outside world. This zany mutual regard shows a tender bond between two hypersensitive artists who may not be as different as they thought.
Sadly, this dynamic is left undeveloped, just an underlying theme. What starts as an insightful examination of friendship amid polar opposites keeps turning into a flat comedy. The well-intentioned script works great in each vignette as Elizabeth enters and leaves the hospital. This setup cannot accommodate a full-length piece, however. To compensate, Heaton uses unbalanced, ill-timed humor. She pits her characters against each other as if it were an exaggerated madcap social experiment. What will happen next, and which character’s absurd, creative outburst? It’s an amusing setup that soon runs out of steam, for there is nothing deeper or more substantive to help pick up the pace.
Director Katrin Hilbe makes the most of what she has to work with, staging scenes of outrage and confrontation with a startling, frightening realness. When Pound aggressively assaults Bishop for not bringing him microfilm strips from the Library, it’s easy to see the inspiration behind her powerful poem. This scene especially exhibits how Hepburn carries the show as the iconic modernist poet and quintessential tortured Jew. His fairweather temper and insecure narcissism nail the idea of a petulant artist so used to his own infamy that he won’t be ignored. He plays well off Fizzard, too, though his performance wholly (and rightfully) overshadows her. In fact, this volatility can even be seen in his hospital room, as set designer Elisa Schaefer had great fun imagining how a famous poet might decorate his designated living space.
Because of the interesting subject matter, The Man in the Newspaper Hat is able to get away with a lackluster script. Those who enjoy the lofty, ungrounded combination of theater and poetry, historical fiction and biography, may actually find merit to the writing, too. The evening’s entertainment stems from exploring the imaginative everyday lives of two contemporary American writers, and the way in which one’s behavior may have prompted the other to write a scathing poem about him. But without a strong beginning, middle, or end, the play reads more like a string of arbitrary, unlikely arguments between two revered literary figures than anything that would make them truly empathetic and real.
The Man in the Newspaper Hat (70 minutes; no intermission)
45th Street Theater (354 West 45th Street)
Tickets [www.theatermania.com]: $18
Performances [through 4/1]: Mons-Weds 8pm; Sundays 2pm
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Even in segregated Alabama, 1962, things were hardly black and white, and that's what makes Tracey Scott Wilson's meaty new play, The Good Negro, a Technicolor triumph. This radiance of nuance represents the truth: good, bad, and the ugly are just different hues. After all, to some, "good" is maintaining the status quo; to others, standing up to oppression, nonviolently, is what makes one "good"; still others will celebrate those who fought back directly, blow for blow.
It's a lesson that Pelzie Sullivan (Francois Battiste) learns rather quickly after his wife, Claudette (Joniece Abbot-Pratt), and his four-year-old daughter are arrested for using a white restroom. It isn't long before the good minister James Lawrence (Curtis McClarin) arrives, galvanized to action. Also on scene is the wiretapping FBI, Paul Moore and Steve Lane (Quincy Dunn-Baker and Brian Wallace). These are the "good" guys, though they quickly prove otherwise as they tap a local would-be hero, Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr. (Erik Jensen), to join and inform on the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, everyone succumbs: Lawrence's right-hand men--the controlling preacher, Henry Evans (the phenomenal J. Bernard Calloway) and clueless lawyer, Bill Rutherford (LeRoy McClain)--squabble over how to best fight segregation. Pelzie, after losing his job, turns to alcohol, and his wife cheats on him . . . with that "good" minster, James Lawrence.
By knocking everyone off their pedestals, Wilson lends more weight to their arguments, not less. Leveling the playing field also allows her to juxtapose scenes to sometimes terrifying effect, stripping away the easy moral signifiers of "good" and "bad" until there are only two passionate men speaking. At one point, twin sermons from Rowe and Lawrence overlap, joining on the line "Help us my friends"; their passions are identical, their audiences just happen to be different. This effect is enhanced by Liesl Tommy's expert direction--though these scenes are miles apart in content, they share the same plain wooden stage, the same chairs and tables. Scenes don't end, they just shift focus, as when Lawrence suddenly fades out, his presence overshadowed by the FBI's arrival, his voice replaced by the tape they've made of him. Additionally, thanks to quick lights from Lap Chi Chu and an excellent sound design from Daniel Baker, the audience often becomes the audience-within-a-play (i.e., the congregation), amens, murmurs, and all.
While there is a degree of stage magic, there are no tricks going on--in fact, if anything, the lack of walls on Clint Ramos's set hints at the fact that we are meant to see everything. And we do: when a bomb goes off in Rutherford's house, a jealous Evans tries to explain that they were probably aiming for his house; when Evans and Lawrence are arrested and the police car heads for the bridge instead of the jail, we can see the fear sweating down their brows; we're sympathetic even to the FBI agents, who follow orders because it is easier to do that than to think about the morality of their actions.
In fact, Wilson shows us everything except for the actual marches and the actual violence. It's a smart move, because it helps us to keep things personal, without getting lost in the emotions of larger events. In this sense, The Good Negro seems almost Sorkin-esque, doing a better job at showcasing segregation by remaining resolutely behind the scenes, more interested in the people and the politics than the results--and it's this that makes the last twenty minutes so powerful.
The Good Negro (2hrs 45min, 1 intermission)
Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street)
Tickets (212-967-7555): $60.00
Performances (through 4/19): Tues. @ 7 | Weds. - Sat. @ 8 | Sat. & Sun. @ 2
Monday, March 16, 2009
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Robert C. Lyons's Red-Haired Thomas is an openly cryptic new play; after all, it stars Thomas Jefferson (Alan Benditt) in a contemporary setting and deals with the most elusive and human of all human rights: the right to pursue happiness. (That's more or less the first line.) This makes Oliver Butler a wise choice for director: he has an ability to condense and clarify magical realism (as he has with his group The Debate Society) without stifling the material. Sure enough, save for a few wrinkles with a too-directly political subplot, the collaboration results in a thought-provoking evening, poking fun at our tendency to blow our problems out of proportion even as we minimize the unfortunate circumstances of others.
Where one may take issue is that Lyons has written myopically from the POV of Cliff (Peter Sprague), a symbolic capitalist, from the gun-slinging attire he dons to his "job" as a freewheeling poker player, undone the second he grows a conscience--in this case, by his worries for his daughter, Abby (Nicole Raphael). This makes Cliff's counterpart, the hardworking and bitter newspaper salesman Iftikhar (Danny Beiruti) into a stereotype. Lyons wisely skirts the issue by treating him as a joke (and Butler has Beiruti ham it up), but it overpowers the truth behind Iftikhar's feeble attempt at being a suicide bomber: "In the paper, they treat us all the same!"
The play is stronger when on more serious and solid footing--Iftikhar may seem like an ass, but it's hard not to empathize when he refuses to return a portentous $20 bill to Cliff: "I will draw strength from it, knowing that somewhere, someone resents me for what I have. Then I will know the sweet taste of America." It's for this reason that the segments following Cliff's wife, Marissa (Danielle Skraastad), don't really work: while the worldview of a risk-management consultant is interesting, the presentation (PowerPoint and musical interlude) is jarring. This is also why Abby's scenes are so effective--not only is Raphael a perfectly convincing 11-year-old, but she's pure, even when playing her counterpart, Iftikhar's hajib-clad daughter.
In the end, it's the freedom Red-Haired Thomas touts that saves it. Lyons's script jumps around in an entertainingly comic way (thanks to the breathless Sprague, exasperated Benditt, and endearing Raphael), and Butler's direction accommodates it, using the entire Ohio Theater to emphasize the importance of location. There's also a neat visual effect, both in Sydney Maresca's costumes--modern times cross with Jeffersonian times as characters become what they (or others) envision them to be--and in the way Tom Gleeson's tarted up the set, creating an illusion of splendor for Iftikhar and Cliff to fight over. It's a credit to the cast and crew that when the facade is pulled down, the audience remains entranced--aware, more than ever, of the need for dreams.
Red-Haired Thomas (90 min., no intermission)
Ohio Theater (66 Wooster Street)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $18.00
Performances (through 3/28): Wed. - Sat. @ 8 | Sun. @ 7
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Shakespeare may have been accused of many questionable things—a dirty mind, a penchant for gender-benders, easy Rom Com jokes—but he was always above board and a genius in terms of form. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for the latest homage to the Bard, LIVE!… at the Cockpit: Will at Work with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a hammy hodgepodge of scenes from “backstage” at the Globe. The conceit eschews a plot in favor of a collection of moving Polaroids from the era, but without a through-line to connect the scenes, the piece feels incomplete. It also smacks of a less well-composed, less clever Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) in its attempt to be casually irreverent and off-the-cuff about the Bard's prolific life.
Longtime Shakespeare nerds will have no problem picking up the inside jokes referring to the language or characters from particular plays in the canon, but audience members who aren’t familiar with Will’s work might be lost. There are also, however, inside jokes for anyone who has worked in a low-budget theater, especially in college and especially Shakespeare ala college: dork-tacular play-jousting, the constant post-performance drinking (and the creative work that always ensues at the bar), and the restlessness and improvisation spawned by the boredom of filling time backstage during a long show. The effect, along with the uncomfortably long, silent scene changes, is discomfiting and awkward at best.
The fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants feeling of LIVE!… extends to the playbill. There wasn’t one: just a live, cabaret-style introduction of each actor at the top of the show. In fact, it’s not even clear who wrote the show, or if it is, fittingly, an improv-based collaboration of the ensemble. Kudos to Dave Warth, who plays the Bard himself and brings the brooding, impatient and cynical air of a playwright frustrated with his resources to each scene. If only he and his “men” could connect the dots of their sketchy ideas and turn this collection of scenes into a more cohesive whole, they may have something on their hands that would make the real Bard chuckle in his grave.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
A potato gun, a bottle of Jameson, and an opening-scene rendition of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” would in lesser hands be a formula for disaster on any stage, inviting ethnocentric overkill and exaggerated nostalgia for one’s homeland. Lucky for Nora Sun McLaughlin (and her audience), her new play The Giant’s Causeways is excellently balanced.
Bringing together politics, humor, history and brotherhood, McLaughlin wraps these themes tightly around each other to create an earnest and straightforward framework for her characters. This works exceptionally well considering the turbulent backdrop of Belfast circa 1969-1971. Good for a laugh, working class, and Catholic, Conall (Thomas Hodgskin) is determined “no matter what happens” not to let current events divide him and his best friend who just happens to be Protestant, the practical, buttoned-up Seamus (James Fauvell). As blood gets shed and family members murdered, this innocent pact becomes harder to uphold than either expected. Things get heated and personal once the British Army starts entering the city limits, and suddenly all bets are off. These two boys, who once only ever argued over their conflicting taste in famous actresses, now begin attacking each other on every standpoint.
Conall’s suggestion to go away on holiday together sparks suspicion of anarchist political affiliations from Seamus, who chides Conall that “the IRA stands for I Ran Away.” Meanwhile Seamus, with a widowed mother and several younger sisters on his hands, feels forced to join the Loyalist army, the United Volunteer Force, against Conall’s concerned pleading. Inspired by an anecdote she once heard her father tell about a return trip home he took during “the Troubles”, McLaughlin pulls her weight as a true Irish storyteller whose narrative style of vivid imagery and upbeat humor makes this play feel more like fluid prose at times. A jarring history lesson as much as an account of the tender loss of innocence, Giant’s Causeways is the marking of great theater: it invites you into a world you may not have experienced otherwise, and changes the way you once may have viewed it.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Reviewed by Ilana Novick
Una Aya Osato's Recess is based on the writer/performer's experiences attending and teaching in New York City Public Schools. Sharita Jackson is only six years old, but has to cope with a dying mother and a social and academic landscape that is more like Dangerous Minds than elementary school. Adding insult to injury, Sharita’s teacher, Ms. White, is convinced she’s the devil of second grade, due to her constant fighting and undermining. Sharita’s attempts to understand what’s happening to her mother and to fit in at school are heartbreaking and fascinating. She alternates between wanting to be mature and helpful (asking her mother if she wants her medicine) and like any seven-year-old, asking if she can never go to school again.
The other characters aren’t quite as developed--for instance, Ms. White is alternately disdainful and afraid of her students, which certainly rings true, but it’s never explained why her students provoke both feelings, or why, if she’s so scared and disapproving, she got into teaching in the first place. The subplot involving videotaped messages from the children to President Obama also seems a little extraneous, especially for an hour-long show dealing with such heavy matters. Still, thanks to Osato’s insights and her realistic portrayal of a six-year-old, Recess manages to carry that emotional weight.
Monday, March 09, 2009
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Bricken Sparacino titular question, Are We Freaks?, is both rhetorical and serious. This isn't bad, it's just unbalanced: the campy presentation of this Tales from the Crypt-like quartet of twisty sideshow stories overtakes everything else. At best, there's a gender-bending adventure in which Annabelle (Sparacino) unwittingly uses a two-wish death mask to turn her best friend Lizz (Uma Incrocci) into the man of her dreams ("I wish I could meet a guy just like you!")--it's clever and energetic. Not as good is the Carrie-like tale of Abby (Joy Gabriel), a socially awkward "freak" who heads off to college, knowing that she can hide her inside-out parts away. Superficial Pam and Devon (Hannah Wolfe and Annalyse McCoy) have been bribed (by Abby's mother) into letting her into a sorority (of all places), and face consequences when the truth comes out. The other two segments--involving the unconjoined Wonder-ful Twins (Sparacino and Jennie Inchausti) and Caitlin the Cat and Leslie the Lobster Girl (Melanie Wehrmacher and Kara M. Tyler)--are just silly. So what?
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
"Do you ever have the feeling that everything that is happening has happened before and will happen again?" To this question, posed by the affable Christian Cagigal, the answer can only be yes, particularly when it comes to "mental" magic tricks. And no, it's not deja vu: if you see a lot of theater, you've probably seen some of these tricks before.
And yet, thanks to his casual showmanship--the deliberate placement of objects, the metronomic pacing of his transitions and tricks, his roll-with-the-punches attitude--we're able to humor him. And, in doing so, we're able to humor ourselves, especially if one stops trying to tear down the wizard's curtain, appreciating the illusions as an extension of our imagination. What's especially nice about Cagigal's performance is that the flair isn't squandered on razzle-dazzle effects; instead, it builds a strong narrative (involving Cagigal's memories of his sick, war-veteran father), one which nicely resolves itself in a metatrick that ties together all the talk of time travel and strange childhoods.
Sunday, March 08, 2009
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre
Set in Brooklyn, “God's last refuge,” The Question House is inhabited by Harvey Krytz (Howard Green) and Margaret (Cam Kornman), his most senior (naturally and professionally) employee. Business is rolling in, but there's not enough staff to handle the workload--they keep dropping dead when they don't follow the rule: all questions, all the time. If you forget and try to declare yourself (park your ego by the door), you'll die instantly from cardiac arrest (although on stage it looks and sounds like death by gunfire).
But not everybody goes quickly. Bingham, played strongly but over-dramatically by Snezhana Chernova, gives her job a good go until she forgets to put her resignation in the form of a question. After that, Krytz and Margaret are left to figure out how the paramedics can move the body safely without wearing toe tags themselves. Luckily, the grim reaper only lives inside the house.
The Question House is gimmicky, but it mostly works because the cast’s comedic muscles are well-developed. Kornman, under Catherine Siracusa's tongue-in-cheek direction, is especially great at putting a wily and facetious inflection on her questions, making it delightful to watch her at every turn. Dairman's script can be tiresome at times, but it is also quite clever. The writing shines the most in the amusing exchanges between Margaret, Krytz, and Charlie Peat (Nick DeSimone), a new applicant, and the show’s highlight involves the “questionable” parts of a Bob Dylan song—when Officer Franco (Tom Tinelli) decides he wants to hear the rest, that radio starts to boogie—and you’ve never seen a dance like this until you’ve seen Michael Broughton's special effects.
Between all the tomfoolery, you might “question” the premise: why subject yourself to this type of workplace, particularly when freedom is right outside the door? The answer is simple: for all the guffaws and goofy smiles that you're bound to experience in the show's curt 40 minutes.
FRIGID: The Question House (Run Time; Intermission(s)?)
Kraine Theater (85 E. 4th St., btwn 2nd and Bowery)
Tickets: http://www.smarttix.com/ ($10)
Through March 7th.
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre
This is partially due to the fact that the dialogue plays out more like an improvised conversation (both Jones and Tish have an improv background) than a structured script. The theme is simply too heavy to leave it up to chance. And the show itself, rife with stereotypes and popular history, sometimes talks at the audience rather than engage it even though there are some interactive segments. The laughs may be frequent, but they're bought with off-color jokes. For instance, in one interview, a white teenager jokes about kissing and humping a black girl, and then addresses his mom in a showy, rebellious act.
There are some good bits: one is a fun interaction between Jones and God (also played by Jones), in which they harmonize a progressive spiritual that includes lyrics like “bash the white man in the head.” Another is ONE (One N****r Everywhere), in which the government implants a black man in the unlikeliest of places, with President Obama as ONE's most crowning achievement.
It's not just silliness: there's a poignant statement about how Jewish people and black people have earned the right to laugh. It's even qualified by a series of gruesome stills and videos of oppression, but this context, which should frame the whole show, is just an ending. And that's too little, too late.
FRIGID: The Black Jew Dialogues (60 minutes, no intermission)
Kraine Theater (85 E. 4th St. btwn 2nd and Bowery)
Through March 7th.
Ever wish that all the truths and mysteries unlocked about marriage and love over the centuries were contained in one source? Have therapy and friendly counsel failed to give you the answers that you seek? Then you'll be jumping for joy when you get yourself a copy of The Dysfunctional Guide to Home Perfection, Marital Bliss and Passionate Hot Romance, the companion to 2001's How to Have the Ultimate Orgasm Each and Every Time. Or not. Written over wine by Jennifer Gill, Rachel Grundy, Amy Overman, Amy Beth Sherman, and Theresa Unfried, this collaborative effort may display an impressive knowledge of strong historical females and may exhibit strong performances under Gill's competent direction, but the show itself stays too much in the head.
Gill incorporates her literary degree to develop the concept for the play, but the show never comes together as a cohesive drama. Rather, the narrative is broken up into all 9 chapters of the book (with chapter 9, The Sensuous Woman being the most lively and entertaining) that flirt briefly with characters such as Queen Elizabeth I, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Anne Bradstreet to give the audience different perspectives on dealing with relationships. It's just too bad that the presentation is little more than a literary course. The use of simple but effective props and costumes such as a bonnet and a knitted hat that convincingly dubs as a helmet allow the actors to shift in and out of the different characters, but the show is too monotonous. The stage is also littered with over 30 wine bottles that winds up being overkill: the wine is already mentioned in the playbill, and the labor involved in putting the show together is evident onstage.
What most holds The Dysfunctional Guide back is the lack of an authoritative voice. There are simply too many dissenting opinions, different writing styles and no unified theme. From remaining chaste and unmarried to keeping it sizzling in the bedroom, the show doesn't have any clear advice to dish out, which is what a guide should do. Perhaps the writers thought they could avoid the follow-through by calling it dysfunctional, but you still might walk out of the theater feeling short-changed.
FRIGID: The Dysfunctional Guide to Home Perfection, Marital Bliss and Passionate Hot Romance (50 minutes, no intermission)
The Red Room (85 E. 4th St. btwn 2nd Ave and Broadway)
Through March 7th
Saturday, March 07, 2009
This is a learning position--that is, you will receive comp tickets for the shows we send you to, as well as editorial advice, industry connections, and the opportunity to grow a new, supporting network of criticism. If you're serious enough about theater to consider critiquing it--more spark than snark--please send a resume and a cover letter that explains why you want to join the New Theater Corps.
Reviewed by Ilana Novick
The Expatriates, written by Randy Anderson, Jenny Bennett, and Harrison Williams (with contributions from the rest of the Beggars Group), is an abridged version of the life and career of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and feels more like a history lesson than a full-fledged play. Those familiar with the ups and downs of Fitzgerald’s (Harrison Williams) writing career and his marriage to the feisty, but mentally unstable Zelda (Morgan Lindsey Tachco) will not find any new insights into the author (or his Lost Generation peers).
Told in reverse chronological order, the play moves from Los Angeles, where he is writing for MGM, all the way to his time with Zelda Fitzgerald and his attempts to contain her mental illness. There are also plenty of guest appearances by other Lost Generation luminaries, like Ernest Hemingway (Preston Copley) and Gertrude Stein (Jenny Bennett). Zelda flails around the stage, Sara and Gerald Murphy (Sarah Anderson and Randy Anderson) keep her from failing down, and Hemingway drinks and teases Fitzgerald for not being masculine enough. But aside from Bennett's dryly hilarious turn as Stein (as elliptical and abstract in person as in prose), the play comes across as a live-action commercial for a biopic of Fitzgerald’s life. There's plenty of action, but it's harmless fun, easily forgotten.
The Expatriates (55 minutes, no intermission)
Location: The Kraine Theater
Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis
Debra Hale’s Freedom 85! may be a condensed two-woman show, but multiple characters and slice-of-life storylines transcend this short, modest piece into an evening of thought-provoking and quality theater. Andrea Risk joins Ms. Hale onstage and throughout the night they switch in and out of different gender identities, ages, and ethnicities with ease and swiftness. Playing a sassy Jamaican diner owner trying to push the daily special of curried goat one minute and a shy recovering alcoholic new in town and looking for a fresh start the next, Hale gives an excellent performance with equal parts overflowing attitude and restrained vulnerability. As for Risk, first introduced as an aging British mother who refuses to move into an assisted living facility, she then almost instantaneously morphs into the concerned son who wants what’s best for his mother but can’t articulate the sentiment due to his gruff exterior.
Hale's chameleon-like script matches the versatility of the actresses, spanning geographical and historical distances. Director Kim Blackwell uses well-timed changes in music and lighting to make these shifts, but also maintains the theme of minimalism by limiting her use of any loud sound effects or bright flashes. This approach keeps the actors at the center of it all, letting them do all the work. It also keeps the pace moving and covers a lot of ground as it relates to plot while never allowing the audience to get too comfortable with one scene or character.
Short, intermittent flashbacks, for example, keep too much backstory from clogging up the dialogue while also helping bring to light present-day motives or behavior. An elderly woman’s fear of living alone suddenly makes sense when you see her years earlier in WWII England, shielding herself from air raid bombs and sirens while also trying to keep her little sister safe. Even the less dramatic aspects of the script have an overwhelming sense of sincerity. Common enough incidents like the torture of starting a new waitressing job during a breakfast rush or drinking too much at a wedding where you don’t know anybody ring distinct and isolated onstage, evoking visceral gut reactions of sympathy and concern from the audience.
With razor wit sticking out from all sides bound by a central theme of friendship, this play portrays the true landscape of a small-town diner and the stories behind its colorful regulars from all walks of life.-------------------------------------------
Freedom 85! (60 minutes; no intermission)
Location: Under St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place)
Tickets [www.smarttix.com]: $10
Performances: Saturday 3/7 5:30pm and Sunday 3/8 1pm
Wednesday, March 04, 2009
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre
If you really want to get to know someone using a fun, party-friendly tool, forget playing Truth or Dare. End of the Trail, by Kenny Neal Shults and Sean Owens, is a much more entertaining, exploratory and incredibly witty game. Written almost eight years ago by this pair of real-life friends, it's a shame that this gift wasn't bestowed upon the theatrical world sooner. When several predictions for Armageddon coincide on the same day and threaten to “reset” the earth, rather than cower under the table, Sean and Kenny spend their last few hours playing a dangerous game of truth, pain, and nostalgia. Going through emotional and mental landmines that would make a therapist shriek, the pair map out their lives from how they met to how they'd like to leave the earth with all the failed relationships in between.
Using great wordplay and chemistry, the two actors effortlessly engage the audience from beginning to end by encouraging them to think and laugh uproariously. From Cameron Eng's visually arresting “board” that resembles Monopoly on downers to Alexia Staniotes' foreboding “talky clock” (countdown to the apocalypse), the show is conceptually inventive and exciting. End of the Trail may denote the last moments of these characters' lives, but let's hope it's the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration between the writers behind them.
Frigid Festival: End of the Trail (60 min., no intermission)
The Red Room (85 East 4th Street, between 2nd Ave and Bowery)
Tickets: http://www.smarttix.com/ $15
Through March 6.
Tuesday, March 03, 2009
In Zombie, Bill Connington’s adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s novella, Connington plays Quentin P., a man whose large, thick glasses, receding hairline, and monotone voice are almost aggressively bland, making his appearance in sharp contrast to his horrifying hobbies, which include attempting to give drifters frontal lobotomies, which he hopes will turn them into sex slaves (a zombie). Evil, in other words, lurks in the least likely places, amongst even those who have all the advantages in the world, and may appear as boring on the surface as it is violent underneath. We’ve learned as much from Hannah Arendt and Law and Order: SVU: everyone has learned to fear the loner at the back of the class.
Zombie (70 minutes; no intermission)
Theater Row (410 West 32nd Street)
Tickets available at zombietheplay.com, or at the box office
Monday, March 02, 2009
This short piece has the heart of emerging, push-the-envelope theater but none of the follow-through. The actors are just as surprised by their antics as the audience, and with no one in control, the whole evening is a surreal example of the blind leading the blind. The minimal, monosyllabic script — which revolves around a young man whose quest for love is blocked by his lover’s parents — should provide clarity, but is so abstracted that there is little substance. The emotional original music by Nat Osborn and Dustin Carlson seems the most thought out, but the onstage synthesizer overshadows the actors. The costumes don’t help to set the scene: they mix the pastoral and futuristic, from floral cotton aprons to a cardboard bra shaped like gallon milk jugs (not to mention sequined mini-dresses and black sunglasses). Because the central theme is so abstract, these contradictions are just further examples of over-the-top and disorganized chaos. Similarly, the gratuitous profanity and overt sexuality burdens the performance instead of moving it along. The best part of the evening is Simon Gunner’s campy yet stylistic choreography, weaving in and out of the piece at just the right moments to break the tension and dismiss any confusion through laughter. Other than that, however, this is avant-garde theater at its worst.
Jet of Blood or the Ball of Glass (50 minutes; no intermission)
Under St. Marks (94 Saint Mark's Place)
Tickets (www.smarttix.com): $11
Performances: Saturday 3/7 11:30pm and Sunday 3/8 7:00pm
Sunday, March 01, 2009
You may have seen plays before that attempt to debunk religious beliefs by emphasizing thought over faith, but you've probably never seen it done the way Ronald Coulter's Jihad for Vent and Dummy does it. In it, Coulter tells the audience that we're the “dummy” to his “ventriloquist” by conforming to religion and creating and subscribing to a faith instead of thinking for ourselves. Sid Star, the wooden dummy, acts as a devil's advocate and uses humor to question Coulter's points.
FRIGID FESTIVAL: Jihad for Vent and Dummy (50 min.)
Kraine Theater (85 East 4th Street between 2nd Ave and Bowery)
Tickets: $15. http://www.smarttix.com/
Through March 8.