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, November 26, 2009

No Exit

Turtle Shell Theater’s revival of No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre is a refreshing take on a classic existential piece. Maintaining the play’s core essence with a period setting, director Robert Haufrecht nevertheless captivates a modern audience by establishing blood-curdling conflict between characters. The resulting effect is a haunting portrayal of how our thoughts and actions have the potential to seal our fate, with little hope of escape.

Geraldine Johns, Richard Hymes Esposito and Mihaela Mihut in No Exit

Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis

Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, originally performed in Paris in 1944 just before France’s release from German occupation, continues to chill audiences with its nihilistic exploration of eternal confinement. Three characters, all aware of their mortal ends and prepared to enter whatever comes next, are led into a drawing room with no windows, doors, and permanent electric lighting. Waited on by a man known only as Valet (Etienne Navarre), these characters soon realize the futility of their situation, causing panic and desperation. For these three, past transgressions have all led them to a similar fate, together with no chance of escape.

Once a political journalist disliked and ill-respected by his colleagues, Joseph Garcin (Richard Hymes Esposito) enters the room first. At first impressed by the living arrangement and then disappointed by the lack of torture devices or dingy furnishings, he poses petty complaints to the Valet. While noticing Garcin’s obvious ploy to both retrieve additional information and also request another man’s company, the Valet nevertheless responds only with glib absolutes that neither inform nor reassure before promptly leaving. In these exchanges Navarre embodies the seasoned, smug servant, and his stone-cold presence creates comic contrast against Garcin’s increasing concern.

Inez (Mihaela Mihut) arrives second, a postal worker who “doesn’t care much for men.” An Eastern European native, Mihut has no problem easing into a French accent with precise pronunciation and syllable emphasis. Her slow, raspy line delivery makes the entire production all the more demonic. Often adhering to stage blocking that gives the audience a right-side profile, the sharp lines of her face, messy-on-purpose chignon, and angular body language all add to her character’s strong, direct dialogue.

With a roommate like Inez, Garcin’s faltering masculinity has little room to hide, and Inez notices this trembling fear despite his barking denial. A brash, aggressive woman in riding boots, dark trousers, and ruffled blouse, Inez stomps across the stage eager to take in every detail and establish a sense of all-knowing and extreme preparedness. Garcin at first tries to assume authority by explaining the room’s layout and boasting of his early arrival, but Inez soon takes over as alpha dog. Matched against Mihut’s strong performance, Esposito’s whiny, nasal tone and shrinking stage presence gives homage to Garcin’s complex insecurities. No drop of Sartre’s infamous realism has been neglected among these two, who match wits, scream, and then retreat in silence to opposite ends of the stage.

The final guest arrives soon after. A slim, attractive woman who married well to provide for her younger siblings after being orphaned at a young age, Estelle (Geraldine Johns) trots onto the stage with an erect posture and a proper British accent. Her snobbish pride and icy body language are the only barriers between her two roommates in such closed quarters. Coveted by both Garcin and Inez, Johns’s portrayal of Inez evokes sympathy with her taut, thin red lips and trembling blue eyes. In an instant she composes herself and transitions into a somber monologue concerning her loveless marriage. With Estelle onstage to compound the social and behavioral clashes once more, questions concerning sin, dignity, courage, and sex soon unravel, spiking drama and causing the plot to climax.

In a play that renders sin with sin, Sartre has constructed an intricate and fascinating world of suffering with No Exit. Director Robert Haufrecht plays up character conflict and pushes the envelope further with a brutal focus on sexual subtext, from Inez’s orientation to Estelle’s and Garcin’s infidelity. Scene designer Craig M. Napoliello sets the tone with convincing Second Empire duvets and a warm salmon-pink room that gives a primary sense of comfort before trapping its inhabitants with a locked door. Eric Nightengale provides the perpetual brightness as the light and sound designer, incorporating a bleached starkness for confrontational scenes. This, along with soft music during flashbacks, creates a sense of vulnerability and longing among the despairing characters. A stunning social commentary on war, social status, and sexuality, No Exit is our ticket to hell. Enjoy the ride.

No Exit (90 minutes; no intermission)
Turtle Shell Theater, Times Square Arts Center (300 West 43rd Street, 4th Floor)
Tickets ( $20
Performances (through 12/6): Performances through 12/5 @ 8pm; Sunday 12/6 @ 6pm

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Over the Line

Does anyone ever really study in study hall? The sharp, unabashed dialogue of P. Seth Bauer’s Over the Line makes you glad they don’t, and the strong, competent cast draws a clear picture of six teenagers struggling with adolescence in the New Millennium. However, the show’s second act is a disappointing derailment: all heavy-handed political subtext.

Amanda Dillard, Darren Lipari, Anwen Darcy, and Ivory Aquino in P.Seth Bauer's
OVER THE LINE at The Drilling Company.

Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis

Anyone who remembers being (or raising) a teenager can relate to the characters in P. Seth Bauer’s new play, Over the Line. In a mainstream middle-class American suburb, these kids are given mindless chores, pointless homework assignments, and a slew of warnings from parents and teachers that include “don’t ask questions” and “wait until college.” Their resulting apathy and frustration get expressed through alcohol abuse in friends’ basements or sexual experiments in the backseats of cars.

Bauer’s ruthless writing keeps these characters gritty and real. They swear as a means of shocking one another, for example, and add cigarettes and condoms to an R-rated game of Spin the Bottle. The show revolves around Becky (Amanda Dillard), a sassy blonde who uses her own sex appeal as a weapon before it can be used back against her, and Noah (David Holmes), her pensive, intellectual sometimes-boyfriend. These actors impressively channel these manic, vulnerable teenagers, especially the expert and cunning Dillard, whose character never knows what she wants and so blames others for her agitated state. (Watch her blaze across stage fueled by high-powered angst or even just slumped in a chair, dripping with apathetic ennui.)

As Noah, Holmes plays off of Dillard with patient energy, adding a quiet depth to each scene. Often sitting or standing along the edge of the stage and speaking in soft, slow sentences, Holmes truly embodies the shy, smart boy in high school who thinks too much. Despite their differences, Becky and Noah gravitate towards each other through a mutual need for acceptance and understanding, exposing a tender underlying love story and offsetting the rest of the play’s screaming and profanity.

It’s actually too much drama to resolve, and that leads to an unbalanced second act full of improbable decisions and lame resolutions. The first act crafts relatable characters with true-life crises and believable, if destructive, coping methods; the second act makes them trite. Toward the end of the play, what was real is now bizarre, such as a valedictorian’s choice to join the army—in the middle of her commencement speech. To say nothing of Noah’s reaction to landing in juvenile prison: he takes delightful refuge in his solitude and discovers Kafka at the communal library.

With the loss of these genuine, touching lives, Bauer is no longer able to captivate the audience. Director Hamilton Clancy keeps the drama up, pushing the actors to retain the energy of disgruntled teenagers (who skip from of angst to glee in a heartbeat). The skilled supporting cast includes Anwen Darcy, Darren Lipari, Brendan Reilly and Ivory Aquino, all who make each scene count, be it their great comic timing or the so-real-it’s-chilling funk of a moody teenager.

Set designer Jen Varbalow completes the suburban Americana theme with an inventive take on the manicured green lawn and white picket fence, all painted directly onto the stage with harsh white lines pointing outwards from all four sides of the black box. She also uses wooden classroom chairs for all the scenes whether or not they take place in school, giving an impression of overbearing authority and the limited amount of escape allowed in such a small town. While not winning the audience over completely, when Over the Line sticks to what works and keeps from trying too hard, it does manage to strike a chord with all of us who survived high school and lived to tell the tale.

Over the Line (2 hours; one 10-minute intermission)
The Drilling Company (236 West 78th Street)
Tickets ( $18
Performances (through December 6th): Thurs.-Sats. @ 8pm; Suns. @ 3pm; Final performance December 6th @ 6pm

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

New Theater Corps Hiatus

Everybody takes a vacation--for the next few weeks, like the last few, posting will be exceedingly light as staff takes some time off and prepares for the upcoming months.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cross That River

Allan Harris’s new musical, Cross That River, sheds new light on the old story of the Wild West.

Reviewed by Ilana Novick

This isn’t your average pop-culture rendition, in which John Wayne and the Marlboro Man fight off Native Americans in the pursuit of the self-sufficient American way. But it’s also not an in-your-face rebuttal of those days; instead, it’s a gentle (perhaps too gentle) reminder—ranging songs from country to gospel—that there were other American heroes in that day.

In this case, the hero is Blue (Davis ), a Louisiana slave turned Texas cowboy. Encouraged by his surrogate mother, he flees the plantation and its stereotypically grim abuses (scenes that seem ripped right out of American History textbooks). Predictability doesn’t make it any easier to watch , nor do comic preachers, like Dat der Preacher (Tony Perry, who alternates well between high minded religiosity and outright lecher y). Effective performers—like Soara Joye Ross, who plays Blue’s surrogate mother—get us where it hurts, and her weary eyes and pursed lips sum up the pain of slavery far more than mere words on a page.

Like the basic plot, the songs are a bit stretched, too, milking that river-crossing metaphor for all its worth. (Yes, we get it; it’s the line between slavery and freedom.) However, the quick changes in musical styles, the molasses sweet accents, terrific dancing, and Davis’s rich baritone keep the first act lively. Harris also uses the space well: though the musicians take up most of the small stage, Harris’s narration (as the grown-up Blue) makes it seem more expansive.

Fewer tricks are needed once the story concentrates on Blue’s post-escape life. His childhood skill with horses helps him sign on at the Circle T Ranch of Old Sam Eye (an appropriately tough but loving Timothy Warmen), where, in exchange for food and shelter, he becomes an accomplished cowboy. Blue’s observations and songs about free life are fascinating. For instance, he talks about the irony of chasing and fighting Native Americans, when he too, not so long ago, was once considered just as second-class. Blue’s adult self’s interactions with his younger self (conveniently staged with the adult Blue as narrator) also add a touch of humor. When it’s finally time to ask for a salary for all of the tough physical labor, he glares at pushes his younger self (a sweet yet sly Brandon Gill ) towards his employer.

Rounding out the plot is the inevitable love interest. Annie Hutchinson (Wendy Lynette Fox), an orphan whom Blue meets while he’s cowboy-ing, is taking refuge from her job as a barmaid/whore. Hutchinson answered a personal ad that, following her parent’s death, that took her to a husband in Abilene Texas. She seeks freedom in the west, but women sadly, had more opportunities as barmaids and prostitutes than they did as cowgirls. Where Blue was able to escape slavery through his new life in the Wild West, Hutchinson comes all the way from Philadelphia to Texas, only to bondage in marriage.

Fox hints at this conflict, but the play could have been stronger if the irony was more explicitly mentioned . A few songs could be cut, too expository to be enjoyable, and maybe more exploration of the differences in opportunities for Annie and Blue as Blacks in the Wild West. Overall though, energetic cast, fun songs, and a new window into oft-explored period of American history.