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.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Crazy Sound

The strongest moments of “A Crazy Sound” lie in exploring the unconventional sounds of an insane asylum, those that cannot be contained or expressed in the light of day. Yet the play quickly devolves into a traditional theatrical form, stunting Dario D’Ambrosi’s promising premise and opening scene.

Reviewed by Jessica Freeman-Slade

The inmates of “A Crazy Sound” (from left to right: Meredith Summers, Celeste Moratti, Lucy Alibar, Emma Lynn Worth, Kat Yew, Sheila Dabney.)
Credit: Jonathan Slaff.

Like all good experimental theatre, Dario D’Ambrosi’s “A Crazy Sound” begins in the near-dark. The bareness of the LaMama warehouse annex provides the perfect setting for six women curled beneath white hospital sheets, as a nun recites the Hail Mary up and down the corridor. The sleeping bodies soon pick up the recitation, and the audience is drawn into the possibility that finding this sound beautiful and incomprehensible insinuates that we are the ones made “crazy” by staying to listen to this sound. The opening five-minute sequence, modeled on D’Ambrosi’s observations from a stint in a psychiatric hospital in Milan, embraces all the possibilities of the term “experimental” and truly hooks the audience.

Yet when the lights come up, you are saddened by their return. The women’s vocalizations of their experiences turn trite when they are forced into the realm of regularly paced exposition, from the most benign (Lucy Alibar, exacting hilarious vengeance on a cheating husband) to the most grotesque (Celeste Moratti, counting and muttering as she limps around the hospital floor.) Songs from the inmates punctuate the story, and the plainness of the melodies becomes gratingly mundane when compared to the opening sequence. The inmates even put a fashion show, to delight the visiting daughter of Kat (Kat Yew), who despite her desire to be a good mother will never be able to get out of the hospital. As the women prance about in dolled-up hospital shifts, you don’t feel a longing to see them get out and live their lives, but rather a desire to see them try to get better.

D’Ambrosi seems to both embrace the women’s madness (and inexplicably use it to comic effect) and to insist that the audience be terrified by them. In explaining the women’s insanity, the play’s greater meaning is clouded rather than clarified. Though D’Ambrosi should be given credit for the exact diagnoses unknown, none of these women’s stories lead us to any conclusion about their actual madness, or about how the music they make is either a cure or a palliative. The women certainly seem to enjoy it (and so does the nun, inexplicably) but the audience leaves without sufficient sympathy or even interest. We start in the dark, yet the ending leaves us hoping for something a little bit brighter.

The strongest moments of “A Crazy Sound” lie in exploring the unconventional sounds of an insane asylum, those that cannot be contained or expressed in the light of day. Yet the play quickly devolves into a traditional theatrical form, stunting Dario D’Ambrosi’s promising premise and opening scene.

LaMaMa E.T.C., in its Annex Theatre at 74A East 4th Street. Tickets $20. 212-475-7710.

Shows run through December 30th, Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Coast of Utopia: Shipwreck

Visually thrilling but not as intellectually stirring as Voyage, Shipwreck is a great compliment to the Coast of Utopia trilogy, but a little dry and melodramatic on its own. Worth seeing for the strong ensemble cast, even if the leads are playing too safe to tap into any real emotions.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Tom Stoppard’s Voyage was a very heavy play: as the first part of an epic trilogy about Russian intellectuals and their revolutions (The Coast of Utopia), it bore the responsibility for establishing characters like the exuberantly radical Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke), the passionate literary critic Vissarion Belinksy (Billy Crudup), and the formidable thinker Alexander Herzen (Brían F. O’Byrne). By contrast, Shipwreck, the second part of the trilogy, is light and often comically witty—it sails on the good humor and fortune amassed by the initial installment and suffers little tragedy (or emotion) until deep in the second act. That’s a little ironic, considering that the first act comprises the French revolution, but the big events always seem to happen from afar (in fact, they’re often staged far in the hollow recesses of the gigantic Vivian Beaumont theater). Stoppard is more interested with the reactions of individual cogs than with the entire mechanism, which explains why the second act of Shipwreck focuses on the fomenting of Herzen’s philosophies on life after the tragic (and offstage) death of his deaf son.

Though Stoppard is technically correct when he claims that each part of The Coast of Utopia stands alone, Shipwreck doesn’t do much by itself: it starts off as a dry exchange of idealisms in Paris and then travels to Nice for a shallow tale of adulterous passion. The former is a shadow of Voyage, the latter is a spectral stab at Chekhov—both seem perfunctory. Herzen simply isn’t as interesting as Bakunin—even when he catches his wife, Natalie (Jennifer Ehle) having an affair with the poet George Herwegh (David Harbour) his stoicism drains the danger from the scene. Such internal mystery is fine for characters who are still on the periphery, like Ivan Turgenev (an excellent Josh Hamilton) and Nicholas Ogarev (Jason Butler Harner), and we don’t have time to delve into the souls of thirty characters, but there ought to be more for the protagonist. Stoppard defines Herzen by history rather than action; consequently, O’Byrne speaks to make the words big instead of allowing the words—those dim, desperately grasped-upon ideas—to make him big. A character defined by words alone is more golem than human.

However, within the context of the entire cycle, Shipwreck is a far more enjoyable evening. It’s not often that we get to see characters grow over several decades or to see talented actors like Richard Easton and Martha Plimpton making the most of small roles. The extra layers from play to play add dimensions to otherwise static scenes, and even at its most boring, director Jack O’Brien has made The Coast of Utopia beautiful to look at. Shipwreck winds up, fittingly, like Herzen: focused more on the technical marvels of O’Brien and company than the emotional range of O’Byrne and company. (Not to diminish the cast in whole: Bianca Amato and Amy Irving, among others, are stunning.)

Because there is less meat to Shipwreck, O’Brien has flavored his theatrical stew with vibrant staging and a transformative set. The deep recesses of the Vivian Beaumont Theater are used in full to play with perspective to show us the Place de la Concorde in Paris being sacked by revolutionaries. Giant chandeliers and oppressive skylights capture the attention and focus the mood better than complex, two-ton sets. Even the simplicity of a watercolor scrim is enough to make us feel at home in Italy. And with just the faintest touch of lighting, O’Brien can plunge us into prison or carry us across the ocean. During segues, characters sing, lending an operatic quality to an already epic cycle. It’s a pity the heart of the play doesn’t match the quality of the staging.

There are, however, high hopes for Salvage. Voyage set up believable characters and breathed the great revolutionary ideas into them. Shipwreck spends its two-and-a-half hours draining these characters of their hot air. Revolution is in the air, and even if it doesn’t reach us in Salvage, we’ll at least have one final opportunity to enjoy O’Brien’s marvelous direction.

Vivian Beaumont Theater (150 West 65th Street)
Tickets (212-239-6200): $65.00-100.00

Monday, December 18, 2006


Strings has the potential to be a better play, but perhaps only in one of these hypothetical parallel universes that it refers to. Here on our Earth, the parallels between unexplainable tragedy and mysterious science are too loosely knit to be the membranes of m-theory, and the cast is too uneven to be its strings.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Intellectual plays are only as good as they are clever, and although Strings is occasionally very smart, the majority of Carole Buggé’s text goes about reminding us of that fact. (Characters are constantly quoting poetry as if Brit-Lit were the intellectual equivalent of street cred.) The conversations about string theory are fascinating, but not when the actors have to break the fourth wall and use illustrative examples to explain it. That’s like admitting that the parallels between science and society aren’t clear enough. As for the affair at the heart of this play—June cheats on her cosmologist husband, George, with their best friend, Rory (a particle physicist)—it must not be interesting enough, because Buggé adds their scientific idols: there’s a very foppish Isaac Newton (Drew Dix), a dowdy Marie Curie (Andrea Gallo), and a very stolid Max Planck (Kurt Elftmann). Rather than fix the tedium of the train ride or the lulls in the conversation, Buggé uses fantasy to build intimate exposition. As a final element, there’s the raw emotion of June and Rory’s dead son—not just dead, by the way, but 9/11ed. (If playwrights are going to keep using 9/11 as a tragic catchall, then I can verb the tragedy.)

The Open Book production company focuses on minimalist productions that emphasize the literature and the script more than the theatrics, and that’s fine for a thinking play like Buggé’s. But it also means that when the text dries up or the actors falter, there’s nothing to distract us. Mia Dillon’s fine playing Rory as a callous flirt, but it’s hard to believe her when she’s crying over her dead son. Keir Dullea doesn’t seem to know his lines, but he’s fortunately cast as a pompous aristocrat, which makes it hard to tell when he’s fumbling or just being British. The shining star of this piece is Warren Kelley, whose roguish, cockney explanations of the uncertainty principle make for jarring, dramatic work, and a world where Strings can parallel Frayn’s Copenhagen.

The second act brings a nice twist: this time, Rory and June are married, and George is the cheating best friend. It’s interesting to watch the events play out again, but when June says, for the second time, that she’s got the oddest feeling of déjà vu, it loses its charm. Strings suffers the same fate: the story itself (and the science) is interesting enough, but only when left alone. The more Buggé adds, the emptier it seems.

78th Street Theater Lab (236 West 78th Street)
Tickets (212-362-0329): $18.00
Wednesday-Saturday @ 8:15

Earth in Trance

A smart play with a strikingly capable cast, Earth in Trance packs on cultural reference after cultural reference, eventually spinning out of its own plotline and into provocative, captivating chaos.


There is a wall in Brooklyn that is covered in graffiti, splattered with the following phrase: “I asked for paté. I suffered. I asked for paté.”

In many ways, this small patch of scrawl accurately sums up the action of Earth in Trance, written and directed by the Brazilian visionary Gerald Thomas and playing at La MaMa through December 30th.

The sixty-minute play, performed by Brazil’s Dry Opera Theater Company, is set in a mercurial singer’s dressing room as she waits to go onstage and perform the role of Isolde in Wagner’s opera. To help pass the time and soothe her nerves, the Actress (played by a comely and lingerie-clad Fabiana Gugli) drinks, pops pills, and talks to her only confidante in this world, the Swan (brought to life by the engaging and duck-billed arm of puppeteer Juliano Antunes and voiced by the wonderfully apathetic Gen X intonations of Seth Powers).

Early on, a driving theme of the play is set forth – how crazy is ‘crazy’ in a world as upside-down as our own? As the Actress coddles and feeds her Swan with an ASPCA affection quickly undercut by the her admission that she intends to fatten him to make foie gras, we learn that crazy is just another word for nothing left to lose.

And just like that, the humor of the play is revealed – Earth in Trance is rooted solely in the absurdity of the modern world, calling on current events and 21st century hot topics ranging from goose liver controversy to Rumsfeld’s departure to Foley’s fast-typing fingers to the O-Zone layer, all to furnish jokes for characters so completely out of their minds that the Actress can only conclude, “We are inside the head of George W. Bush.”

Gerald Thomas is no stranger to the absurd, having worked with Beckett and both directed and adapted many of the quintessentially existentialist playwright’s works. Thomas repeatedly references both Beckett and his absurdist contemporaries throughout Earth in Trance, turning the play into a sort of inside joke for any theater buff or drama major. We’re even told how Godot got his name, why Pinter so loves the sound of silence, and the many frustrations encountered when trying to simultaneously follow the Stanislavski method and flirt with fellow performers. This is a smart play, no doubt about it, and it quite obviously knows its genre well.

However, as smart as Earth in Trance is, it seems to get so mired in its cultural references that the play can’t take a step towards defining, let alone resolving, its own action. Earth in Trance goes everywhere and nowhere at once, and while Gugli is quite something, tearing up monologue after monologue onstage (as she well should, considering Thomas wrote the play for her) and Antunes’ and Powers’ joint performance is altogether fascinating, Earth in Trance spins so quickly around so many issues that it throws itself entirely out of orbit.

Earth in Trance packs quite a punch, indeed, but at the end of the hour, one wonders a bit what all the blows were for. Still, the show is worth seeing for anyone interested in the future of Absurdist Theater in a post-post-modern, hyper-paradoxical world. After all, there are far worse things that being barraged with smart ideas, even if they don’t come with a side of paté.


La MaMa (74A East 4th Street)
Tickets (212-475-7710 or $15
Performances: December 14th through December 30th, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:30pm and 8:00pm. There is no performance on Sunday, December 24th.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Dark times make for good dramas, and while the narrative of Heresy is too cluttered with half-explored incidentals, the heart is there. As an educational piece, it's worth checking out, but uneven acting may be too great a gulf for the audience to cross.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Sabina Berman’s Heresy, playing at the HERE Arts Center, is an attempt both to represent the immigration of colonists to Mexico in the 16th century and the religious persecution of the Jews, even in the New World. The cast’s blunt speechifying makes the result more like a history lesson; the black boxes, hats, and masks left scattered across the empty emphasize this schoolhouse atmosphere. But it’s not a bad play, and as educational theater (based on autobiography), it’s surprisingly solid.

The action takes place in New Spain (Mexico) as it is “civilized” by Luis de Carbajal the Elder (a stilted, DeNiro-like Manny Alfáro). Luis is a genuine Catholic—or at least a fearful opportunist—but when he discovers that his relatives still practice Judaism, he remains silent. Other characters are swept into this fold as well, from the uneducated Jesús Baltazár (Andrew Eisenman) to Luis’s faithful servant, Pedro Nuñez (an often-flat Bill Cohen). Their stories wash in and out, but due to the years-spanning scope, they seem like moralist examples of persecution rather than dramatic scenes.

Heresy begins with the torture/interrogation of Luis de Carbajal the Younger (the charismatic Morteza Tavakoli): it makes sense, therefore, for the extended flashbacks of the show to come off as exhibits. There is defiance in Doña Isabel’s (the excellent Sue Hyon) Israeli pride, there is innocence in Rodriguez Matos’ (Mauricio Leyton) faith, and there is doubt in Luis the Younger’s soul. The drama comes from the conflict between young Luis and his brother, Brother Augustin (a haunted Daniel Damiano), and if Berman ever wants to focus the text, this is the ideal place to do so.

Heresy is a large show that could use a little more ambition. Crammed into ninety minutes, twenty of which are repetitive (yet brutal) scenes with the inquisitors, there isn’t enough time to really savor the theatrical life of the Jewish traditions and ceremonies that were forced underground. A marriage ceremony is forced to double as a confrontation, and several stories (like that of Jesús Baltazár) are told half in summarizing monologues, half in vignettes. A better balance needs to be found in the narrative structure for us to accept this type of confessional storytelling. But even unbalanced and occasionally clumsy, Heresy is an inspired piece of theater—it’s just not inspirational.

HERE Arts Center (145 Avenue of the Americas)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $15.00
Performances: 12/13 @ 7:00; 12/15 @ 7:00; 12/16 @ 2:00; 12/17 @ 2:00

Saturday, December 09, 2006

All Fall Down

All Fall Down
Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan

All Fall Down, written by David Ledoux, makes a striking introduction for the Theatre Recrudescence. This science fiction play warns of “the plague” which kills nearly everyone in Manhattan. “The cure” is available to a few selected individuals. But what is inherently interesting in this play is the irony of a “cure” that kills. The emotional and moral twists and turns of this play trap the audience because no one van escape the horrible plight of the “plague”. This is a great way for this company to make its debut. The play is well put together. The ensemble works well together and brings the world that they created to life. Despite some awkward scene transitions, this play puts this company on the board in a big way. All Fall Down is a delight. It’s provocative, scary, and comical, which is no small feat!

Friday, December 08, 2006

Love: A Tragic Etude

Love: A Tragic Etude is powerful, visceral theater wrapped up in fancy but minimalist avant-guarde direction. Graphic, unflinching, and led by the magnificent Melinda Helfrich, this show is not to be missed.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Love was a battlefield long before they sung it that way. Love: A Tragic Etude is expressionist theater that merges the violence of Sarah Kane with the dystopian tragedy of Brecht. The individual pieces don’t always make sense, but they’re viscerally resonant and poetically raw. Taken together, the effect is an overwhelming study (set to live piano accompaniment, for those who don’t know what an etude is) in dismantling our values, punishing our heroes, and torturing our innocence. Love is not just blind—she is unflinching, too.

Written and directed by Juan Souki without a moment of respite or pity for the audience, love is dismantled at every turn. Even the gentle caresses of our two lovers, Fernando (Gil Bar-Sela) and Arena (Melinda Helfrich), are false: Fernando has already left the fictitious Red City for military service and Arena is reading his letter. Their unity is a mirage of Souki’s magnificent staging; a side effect of the short silent film we see that cites their celebration “five years of union.” Over the next ninety minutes, Souki carves time and space, using jagged physical techniques and delicately synchronized movement to make a brutally beautiful play.

The plot quickly becomes secondary to the incidents, but it’s enough to say that Fernando rebels against the ugly sadism of his military, only to be captured and tortured, a martyr for innocence and love. Arena is the unfortunate effigy of his suffering: when Fernando is first captured, the commander tells him that they’ve prepared a show. Two gas-mask-wearing soldiers bring a half-naked Arena onstage, slowly wrap her in cellophane, and then systematically rape her, changing her position with each ring of a triangle. It is a dehumanizing act: enough to make even one of the soldiers vomit with disgust. Her unborn child miscarries, and afterward, as she lies on a table, broken and discarded, one soldier, suddenly finding his humanity, sings a mournful aria for her.

The testament to the director’s arresting vision comes a few short scenes later: Arena stands with a basket onstage, when the four soldiers cross the fourth wall. Suddenly, they are the actors again—Jeremy Bobb, Aryeh Lappin, Kate Loconti, and K. K. Moggie—and they are heckling not Arena, but the actress herself. The rape was scripted—violent, but choreographed—but this, this is personal, and Souki has made the audience implicit in an abuse that blurs reality. Some of the other moments in Love come across as stunts (like a choreographed boy-band dance that springs out of a rote military march), but not this—this hurts. (And Helfrich, a fantastic actor, shows it.)

Love is an uncompromisingly dark vision of a doomed society, and Juan Souki has done a magnificent job at capturing our attention with a remarkably minimal set (just one heavy table, often slammed against the ground for emphasis, and some rotating wall panels). I’d be terrified to see what Souki could do with more resources: he does so much already with so little.

Kraine Theater (85 East 4th Street)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $18.00
Performances: Monday, Wednesday, Friday @ 8:00; Saturday @ 3:00

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

An Inside Look at DirectorFest 2006

Posted by Aaron Riccio

Everybody remembers the actors, and if they don’t fall asleep, they’re aware of the playwright’s words, too. But outside of awards shows, how many people ever give credit to the directors? How many people recognize all the hard work that goes into pulling the disparate parts together, from scene work to scenery? Not enough, but perhaps more should: and if you’re looking for upcoming directorial talent, there’s no better place to turn than The Drama League’s DirectorFest 2006, its twenty-third festival of one-acts directed by members of The Drama League Directors Project.

Culled from a crop of young applicants, the fellows have an opportunity to network and learn from industrial professionals and get hands-on experience with NYC and regional assistant directing assignments. This year’s directors are Meredith McDonough, Alex Torra, and Jaime Castañeda, and below you can read how they view the industry, the process, and the importance of theater. Selected portions of their interview follows, but you can see the culmination of their vision Thursday, December 7 through Sunday, December 10 at the Abington Theater Center’s June Havoc Theater (312 West 36th St.), an evening (or afternoon) of new one-acts like Itamar Moses’ Authorial Intent or Jonathan Ceniceroz’s The Blessing of the Animal, as well as an old Harold Pinter play, One for the Road.


Jaime Castañeda, director of One for the Road, is an MFA graduate of the University of Texas, and goes where the work carries him. It’s a road that ranges from the Summer Play Festival (SPF, Welcome to Arroyos), to the theater company he founded in Texas (Firestarter Productions), all the way to the Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska: “Good work is good work wherever you are,” says Mr. Castañeda. “Sometimes it happens where you least expect it. Above all, I like to take in as much as possible from anywhere and everywhere.”

Though Mr. Castañeda was the one director to choose a previously performed work for DirectorFest 2006 (and Pinter, of all the tight-lipped geniuses), it’s not so much a choice between loving classics over modern plays as it is a desire to “pick pieces that challenge me. I want to think and feel. I want my audience to think and feel. If I look at a play and don’t know what to do with it—then I’m excited.” Along that line, One for the Road is a play that presents this director with an opportunity to play with “great language and material” as well as the inherent intrigue of the show, a potency that Jaime describes as “what makes Shakespeare so rich.” The director is filled with the desire to ask: “What else can it be? How can we tell this story now?” At that point, the director is “a storyteller along with my other collaborators” and can focus on “telling a story that will engage an audience and provoke thought and reflection.”

In February, as a final part of The Drama League’s directorial fellowship, Jaime will be assistant directing with Neil Pepe for Parlour Song at the Atlantic Theater Company. If “the experience is the people,” then Mr. Castañeda’s work will only grow until finally reaching the wide scope that Jaime admires in director Peter Brook. “For me, it’s about working toward that kind of world perspective in which stories can breathe new life.”


Alex Torra comes to DirectorFest by way of Brown University/Trinity Rep’s MFA program. So far, he’s worked with Neil Labute on Wrecks and will be working as an assistant director with Eric Shaeffer on Saving Aimee when it opens in Washington, D.C. Right now, he’s finishing work on The Blessing of the Animals, a premiere by a colleague of his, the playwright Jonathan Ceniceroz. For Mr. Torra, the opportunity to direct with The Drama League was also a chance to collaborate once more with his colleagues from the consortium, the Latino Triumverate (along with Katie Chavez). Working from a collegiate history has made the development of The Blessing of the Animals “less daunting”: “Nothing is taken personally, and so we can agree, disagree, debate together, [and] celebrate together.” From the audience, it’s also a great chance to see art in the making: the result of artists with different backgrounds coming together to produce a singular work. Directing new work is daunting, agrees Alex: “You want to help realize the vision of a playwright, but at the same time, you don’t want to sacrifice yourself or your art in the process.” But at least in this case, this is one director who’s managed to stack his own deck.

Getting the fellowship with The Drama League was just another asset for Mr. Torra. At Brown, he had the opportunity to learn skills and exercise them to “really give your ideas, your passion, your voice real clarity,” and in a “tremendously safe environment with a loving and supportive community.” Like many young directors, coming out of Brown was a wake-up call, being “pushed out of that nest, it literally felt like falling.” Sacrifice is inevitable for one’s craft, but “[the fellowship] has been a tremendous help to assuage some of the fear that comes with that diploma.” It’s one of the reasons why grants and sponsorship of the arts is so important – in a thoroughly commercial world, how else can a new voice expect to be heard?

Likewise, how can one afford to pursue the types of theater that interest an upcoming artist? As a Miami-born Cuban-American, Mr. Torra’s interest is in “developing and directing work by my peers in the Latino community, those whose parents came to the United States in order to find a better life, and who find themselves living in two cultures at one time. These second generation writers write about things from a place that makes sense to me, and it’s nice to have a community of actors that personally understand these playwright’s words and are excited to bring them to life.” The exploration of this duality is exciting to watch, as is the passion of a director allowed to do what drives him: Mr. Torra will be working at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “There’s a reason these works have been around for so freakin’ long, because they still make sense to us.”

A show like Blessing of the Animals allows Mr. Torra to pursue all of his passions. “I that take liberties with reality, where a kid can actually understand the neighbor’s animals who speak to him.... Anything is possible in a theater, anything can happen, and I like figuring out how far that can go, how it gets represented on stage, and how that allows for an audience to not only be entertained, but to feel something, either joy or anger or love or anything. If they’ve worked their heart and brain while watching one of my shows, I’ve done my job.”

DirectorFest 2006
December 7-10
Abington Theater Center's June Havoc Theater (312 W 36th Street)

Never Missed a Day

Never Missed a Day has a solid message about the way we balance work and play (or in this case, drown the latter with the former), but it's a story written in bluntness: at times it is literally all work, and no play.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

I’d like to say that WorkShop Theater Company’s new show Never Missed a Day never misses a beat, because underneath the awkward pauses and “monolongs” (monologues that go on and on), Ken Jaworowski has written a decent show. And underneath their tics and too-rapt glares (where an actor tries too hard to let the audience know he’s listening), the actors have made a believable connection to their pathetic, self-deceiving office drones. It’s a testament to the truth of the material that even when the pace is so slow you can see a trail of slime, you’re still empathizing (even as your eyelids droop).

The thematic comparisons to Mamet’s classic Glengary Glenross come easy, but that’s the same for any show that bemoans the abuses of an office. But whereas Mamet’s play was filled with action and scheming, Jaworowski is stuck on one note, and in one location: the whole build is whether or not the retiring Deuce will finally tell off his boss, “the bowtie,” after forty-three years of suffering. This narrative structure is tragically indebted to the worst of Eugene O’Neill: the characters are solipsistic and soft, as opposed to Mamet, where they’re at least arrogant enough to be self-centered and slick.

At least the five characters—whether they’re playing a type or not—are different from one another. Though they’re often left sitting in “forget-about-me” silence while one character drones on, you generally believe that they are who they are. But the play makes its point by making the interior and the exterior into pathos: the characters don’t have charisma, and the actors and scenes are all the more dismal for it. Deuce’s final speech is a proselytizing breakdown of all the lies these characters have been feeding us for the last ninety minutes, but Deuce is one of those characters too and his warnings are as rambling and listless as most of the play.

The few lively moments are the intermittent anecdotes or jokes that capture the essence of office life. Director Thomas Coté capitalizes on them when he can, but given the confines of a dull, ill-lit back room of a local bar, we see it more as Coté clinging desperately to the funny bits before his capsized scenes go underwater again. Never Missed a Day isn’t a bad play; but if you missed it, it wouldn’t be the end of the world either.

The Workshop Theater (312 W 36th Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00
Monday, Wednesday-Saturday @ 8:00

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Never Missed a Day

Never Missed a Day
Reviewed by:Nicholas Linnehan
The workshop Theater's production Of Never Missed a Day by Ken Jaworowski depicts the lives of five men who share their pains of being tied to a thankless, demanding job. Each character wrestles with a particular struggle and sacrifice they made for their career. Finally, Deuce, played superbly by Michael Shelle, breaks down and reveals the tremendous loss he withstood in order to satisfy his employer. Thankfully for him, he is now retired.
The ensemble does well at maintaining their honesty in their work. Shade Vaughn is especially noteworthy as Danny, the new yuppie. His presence and comic timing add nicely to the play. The cast could use to eliminate some lengthy pauses between thoughts and dialogue, as this detracts from the momentum of the play. Brian Homer, Nick, suffers from this which hurts his otherwise fine performance.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


Warm and huggy and bleak and emotional at the same time? Must be time for Sondheim again. Revived by John Doyle, whose gimmicks are survived by the cast, this an honest stagings of Company, one that will hopefully nab Raúl Esparza the Tony.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

In spite of director John Doyle (and thanks to Raúl Esparza), Stephen Sondheim’s musical of vignettes, Company, has made a triumphant return to Broadway. From the set to the lighting, the show has everything going for it except Doyle's gimmick of doubling actors as musicians. Whereas Sweeny Todd forced Doyle to come up with creative combinations of character and instrument, Company rarely uses its entire cast at once, which renders the effect more an economic sidebar than a relevant or fresh medley.

There are a few exceptions--the alto saxophones of "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" flutter about almost as much as Bobby's three flustered girlfriends and "Side by Side by Side" has the five married couples riffing off the beat while leaving Bobby to perform a lonely kazoo solo--but it only makes the trick seem all the more forced. "One's impossible, two is dreary," go the lyrics, "three is company, safe and cheery." That said, why set Elizabeth Stanley with a tuba, only to not let her use it in "Barcelona." Not that "Barcelona" can be sung and played by the same two people--that's a feat no more possible than having the fabulous Heather Laws play a flute while singing the ferocious patter song "Getting Married Today." But then why have instruments at all? Why make it hard for the audience to tell if it's a concert performance or theatrical event that they're watching?

But beyond that first step--and it may be a doozy--Company is a triumph, and Esparza is due a Tony for his commanding work as Robert, top dog of the glowing thirteen person ensemble one moment, depressed romantic the next. Esparza nails every note of Bobby's transformation, from his reefer-rific scene with Jenny and David to his impromptu attempt to marry Amy (on her wedding day) to his relationship with ditzy stewardess April (who he affectionately calls June) and to his final straw with the great cynic, Joanne. More than a series of scenes about socialites in the city and their happily married (or divorced) lives, Company becomes a hopeful yet terrifying look at "Being Alive," which is now every bit the melancholy showstopper it deserves to be.

The place looks great, too: David Gallo's postmodern lounge of a set wraps clear glass stands around a distinctly classic Greek column, and the whole thing is topped with a seven-by-seven diamond of lights. For all its transparency, it makes for a perfect prison, and Bobby, who is constantly standing atop one piece of furniture or another looks as if he's trying to escape the mob of well-dressed but "crazy married people" beneath him. The set remains sleek and bachelor-like even as Bobby starts to drop his facade, and the upper-crust conceit is further deconstructed by Thomas C. Hase's lighting, which rises to the mood of Barbara Walsh's brilliant rendition of "The Ladies Who Lunch" and dumbs things down for the ghost-like interludes from the chorus, like "Sorry-Grateful" and "Have I Got a Girl For You." The piano is the only thing mucking up the feng shui of the set -- unless cabaret was the desired effect for songs like "Another Hundred People."

Company is the quintessential New York play, dripping with love (of our sarcastic, Sondheim kind, flayed and beating on the table in depressingly magnificent glory) from Fourteenth to the Upper West, and the gimmicks can't bring that down. There's too much truth, bravely exposed by this ensemble, for the show to be reduced to anything less than brilliance.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

An Oak Tree

Just because it hasn't been done before doesn't mean it should: a cross between a staged reading, a cold audition, and a warm heart, An Oak Tree is so forcefully different that at times it is barely recognizable as theater.

An Oak Tree is Gimmick Theater at it's not-so-finest. However, it's bankable cast makes it viable: every night, a new actor who has never read the script or seen the show will join Tim Crouch (who plays a hypnotist) for this two-hander. The play, written by Crouch, is an interesting short story that uses the metaphor and the mechanics of hypnotism to deal with the grief of memory. The actor plays the father of a little girl that Crouch's hypnotist has killed, a man so distraught by the accident that he's convinced he's turned his daughter into an oak tree. The delusion is well served by the poetic lines, but delivered cold by an actor who is coming to terms with the role piecemeal, it's more controlled and uneven than gripping. Maja Wampusyc, the actor for the 11/18 performance, may have been hypnotized: I, however, was not.

As deconstructionist theater, An Oak Tree is innovative and clever, but not fun to watch. There's a reason why audiences are not invited to rehearsals, and there's a reason why most stage actors refrain from directing themselves. Given that the set consists only of sound equipment and a few chairs (the show is actually performed on the set of Nilaja Sun's No Child...), there's nothing else to look at. Just one actor, doubling as a hypnotist and a director, and another actor, doing their best to keep up and fit in.

If there were clear boundaries in the script to distinguish Crouch's direction (hypnotic or otherwise) from that of his character, or if Crouch didn't also ask the actor to break character, the show might be more effecting. Some nights, it may very well be. But on the whole, it's contrived and, more importantly, controlled. It wants to improvise without making up any lines--it wants the actor to make the show their own with only a tenuous grip on the character. The gimmick steals from the emotion: it's just watching how adeptly the guest star copes with their role, how well they can follow directions, sight-read, and stay open to suggestion (but closed to spontaneity).

Well, it's certainly something different, to try to form the essence of a character in the midst of the action (or lack thereof) itself. But it's not exactly daring, not exactly thought-provoking. Perhaps some nights the soul comes out, and some nights it doesn't: Frances McDormand is scheduled for 11/20, Brooke Smith for 11/25. It's impossible to say what you'll see the night you go, but unless this afternoon was a fluke, chances are you won't be hypnotized either.

Barrow Street Theater (27 Barrow Street)
Tickets (212-239-6200): $45.00
Sunday-Tuesday @ 8:00; Friday & Saturday @ 9:30, Saturday & Sunday @ 5:00

Friday, November 17, 2006

"How to Save the World and Find True Love..."

How to Save the World and Find True Love in 90 minutes may not be the sharpest show off Broadway, but it definitely has the tools to keep you entertained. With some catchy songs and talented cast members, this show leaves you laughing and smiling all the way home.

How to Save the World and Find True Love in 90 minutes may not be the sharpest show off Broadway, but it definitely has the tools to keep you entertained. With some catchy songs and talented cast members, this show leaves you laughing and smiling all the way home. Michael McEachran, who plays Miles Muldoon, a bookstore clerk at the United Nations and the terrorist “He,” is much funnier as the latter character. The fact that he plays both characters makes for a hilarious ending scene in which the characters fight each other. The Greek chorus makes for great entertainment as well and each member is given their chance to individually shine. Anika Larsen also stands out as the quirky yet lovable Julie Lemmon who falls in love with Miles. She has a strong voice and sings some cute songs. The beginning and the end of the musical are strong and funny, but the middle section is a little slow. All in all, it’s an entertaining show that makes for a fun night at the theater.

How to save the world and find true love... plays at New World Stages, located on West 50th street between 8th and 9th avenue.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Beckett Below

ghostcrab has put together a good production of Beckett's aesthetic short plays, but it's not enough to make them enjoyable. More visual than visceral, Beckett Below is the same thought physicalized four different ways, more thoughtful than thought-provoking.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The problem with Samuel Beckett’s short plays is the same one you’ll find with his longer plays – for all the bleakly hopeful lyricism, it’s more often confusing than delightful. If you really go to the theater for existential minimalism and enjoy theatrical devices over theater itself, Beckett’s tightly wrapped plays will delight you; otherwise, there’s not much to do but appreciate the scenery and the craft. Disclaiming aside, the theater company known as ghostcrab has decided to carry on (I can’t go on, I’ll go on) with a compilation of four short Beckett plays. Performed in a small underground theater that gets too stuffy for comfort, the evening is titled Beckett Below, and consists of “Play,” “Act Without Words II,” “Footfalls,” and “That Time,” each showcasing a different director and set of actors. The result is a visually striking enterprise that slathers on a great deal of respect for Beckett while attempting to convert its audience.

The pieces are all text-heavy and cryptic (with the exception of “Act Without Words II,” which is, as the title suggests, wordless), but the gist, conveyed through the atmosphere—a bleak and intentionally ill-lit basement—is one of either persistent suffering or suffering persistence. Each of the shows utilizes a different thematic approach to this subject, ranging from sublime repetition to the metaphoric display of time’s endless decay. In the first scene, “Play,” actors are minimized to heads atop urns that speak only when a flashlight shines on them, and then only for a moment. As if the bare-bones dialogue about an affair doesn’t get the essential drama across enough, the show repeats itself (in its entirety) for emphasis. It’s a nice theatrical touch, but not pleasant to watch.

The second scene, “Act Without Words II,” employs the same circular logic, this time watching the pantomimes of A and B as each, in turn, comes out of a sack, dresses, moves, undresses, and gets back into the sack at the prodding of a goad. Symbolism aside—just take the “a” out of “goad” and you’ve got humanity in a nutshell—you have to ask yourself if this is really what you want to see in the theater. The last two scenes aren’t as circular, but they’re heavy on text spoken by offstage characters (“Footfalls”) or on recorded dialogue (“That Time”), which makes the evening seem, at times, more like a reading than a staged work. There’s acting going on, be sure, and it’s fine, subtle work, but it’s passive and constrained, and not my idea of a good time.

Also, because Beckett’s estate does not allow a production to deviate from the explicit stage directions, if you’ve seen these scenes before, you need never see them again. These highly visual productions, unflinching and unmoving, are as static as the timelessness that they display. You can have intellectual and emotional theater, but Beckett Below, through no fault of ghostcrab, is just aesthetic theater: good for theater majors and historians, but dry as dust and liable to stay that way.

Under St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $18.00
(THROUGH 11/18): Thursday-Saturday @ 8:00

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Count Down
Reviewed by: Nicholas Linnehan

Count Down, a new play by Dominique Cieri, depicts the story of seven abused teenaged girls in a mental hospital. The girls receive a teaching artist as a sort of intervention into their troubled lives. Through the process of art the students begin to heal.
The play, while it has good intentions, suffers from undeveloped characters and predictable endings. Yet the cast does a good job with the flawed script. Led by the talented Dania Ramos, Victoria L. Turner, and Valerie Blazek, the ensemble manages to give the audience soulful moments that are profound. These moments often occur when the girls are dancing or recalling past events from their lives. Unfortunately, these times are cut short in the script. Major Dodge, as the warden, gives an example of the script’s shortcomings. His character lacks emotional development, making him more of a nuisance than anything. As the antagonist, Dodge fails to deliver and the play suffers for it. It is hard to know whether the script or the actor is to blame for this deficit.
Yet, the girls manage to keep the audience interested in the world they created. This is a tribute to their talent and craft. Count Down could use some revisions and invest in some new ideas.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Sneeze

The Sneeze is one Geshundheit of a comedy, a crowd-pleasing collection of early Chekhov comedies set (and staged) in a bar. You will laugh, thanks no doubt to the excellent direction and joyously deft acting. Bless you, it's a show worth seeing!


Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

If a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, what happens when you replace the spoonful with two glasses, and the sugar with liquor? Not that The Sneeze, a translation of Anton Chekhov’s early comic work by the talented Michael Frayn, is medicine—it’s more like ambrosia or manna, palatable as it is. Presented as part of Phoenix Theater Ensemble’s Play in a Pub series, The Sneeze is an intimate, lively bit of comedy. The theme connecting its six short scenes is a little unsteady—a wandering Russian trio walks into a bar (insert joke here)—and it isn’t served by the intermission (the break is more social than theatrical), but hey, have a drink. Stay a while.

A bar’s certainly the right place to stage The Sneeze: the use of Lillian Rhiger’s period costumes fits the cozy Ace of Clubs, and Jeffrey E. Salzberg’s lighting focuses tightly on our rowdy heroes. Director John Giampetro could have used the audience more—the action stays to one side of the room—but he compensates by using the entire bar. Characters run in and out of the two entrances, walk down imaginary steps behind the counter, aim their asides at the closest audience member, and even use the house microphone. The cast, seemingly trained in both classics and comedies, contorts, cavorts, and twitches—whatever it takes—to get the jokes across. At the same time, they stay true to Chekhov’s natural melodrama, assisted by Frayn’s delightfully rhythmic translation, and Giampetro’s sense for dramatic build.

The only flaw with The Sneeze is that Chekhov’s style involves repetition, and no matter how many drop-of-a-dime shifts the actors make, some scenes (like “The Proposal”) start to feel like skits. On the other side of that coin, the monologue “The Evils of Tobacco,” is only effective because of the prolonged repression of Nyukhin (tellingly described in the program as “his wife’s husband”), expertly played here by a faintly rebellious Jason O’Connell. The same goes for “The Bear”: without the extreme distortion built up by Dan Matisa and Laura Piquado, the creditor would never be able to fall for the widower.

These early comedies are much like those of Moliére: they poke fun at social circumstance and exaggerate innocent characters to do so. “The Sneeze” is a pantomime of bureaucracy’s obsequious nature. “The Alien Corn” is a thin excuse to make fun of the French (and Russians, in turn) that’s kept afloat by a boisterous performance from Matisa. And “Drama” is Chekhov turning his gaze back unto us, the audience that thinks it’s easy to be an artist. What could be better at a bar than a harmless series of hundred-year-old jokes at no-one’s expense?

The Sneeze is a spot-on performance, straight down to asides and tactic shifts so crisp that you can see them snap, crackle, and pop right in the actor’s eyes. Just add beer and you’ve got one heck of an infectious evening.

Ace of Clubs (9 Great Jones Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $35.00 (w/two free drinks)
Tuesday @ 7; Saturday @ 3; Sunday @ 3 & 7 [CLOSES 11/14]

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Fortune Teller

How's this for a series of unfortunate events? Seven people walk into a room only to recieve visions of their impending deaths--but don't worry, they're puppets, and their deaths are more clever than gruesome. All this, plus an original Danny Elfman score: it's like getting your poison-coated cake and eating it too!

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Just in time for Halloween, HERE Arts Center has put together the delightfully evil new show The Fortune Teller. It’s the equivalent of seeing several short episodes of Tales from the Crypt, only performed by marionettes—creepy in of itself—and scored by Danny Elfman, channeling the sinister mystery of Batman or The Nightmare Before Christmas. Though the show is performed in miniature, it is amplified by the marvelous gothic dollhouse of a set, and given substance by the creaking mechanical sound effects. These elements mask the triteness of the plot and the sloppiness of some of the puppetry, but considering that The Fortune Teller gets the majority of its laughs from one-liners, this simplicity helps to sustain the illusion.

The story, created by Erik Sanko and narrated (on tape, unfortunately) by Gavin Friday, involves a midnight gathering of various evil men who stand to inherit a fortune. However, as the fortune teller in question attempts to discern their fate, Death keeps leaping to the forefront, a jumpy, excitable force that causes the hunter to be impaled upon a mounted rhinoceros’s horn, makes a chef choke on a wishbone (“Be careful what you wish for”), and poisons a ventriloquist (“Everybody just thought he was a bad ventriloquist”). The fortuneteller discerns an unusual death for each of the characters—like a simpler version of the Final Destination series—and the delight of the show comes from watching these evil people come to the end of their rope (literally). It’s not high drama, but it is entertainment without consequences (unless you have an issue with puppet exploitation). The material’s appropriate for kids too—assuming they’ve been raised on Gorey or Snicket—The Fortune Teller is a series of unfortunate events with little moral twists.

For all the clever devices, Elfman’s music remains the lynchpin of the performance, and those who are fans of his work will find many references to his classic scores. The lethal curiosity of his reverberant tunes is what keeps us watching, even when the puppets repeat themselves (which isn’t often). Here’s a prediction for you: go see The Fortune Teller, and you’ll both have a good time and see something new.

HERE Arts Center (145 Avenue of the Americas)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $20.00
(Through 11/5): Thursday-Monday @ 7:00

Monday, October 23, 2006


When it gets so hot that we can't think, we stop pretending: in Neglect, the facades of who we'd like to be are melted by the scorching glare of a talented playwright, and two talented actors reveal what happens when desperation is all you've got left.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

It’s often said that hell is a place on earth—if that’s true, then Neglect, a marvelous new play by Sharyn Rothstein, takes place there: Chicago, 1995, the height of record-setting mid-July heatwave. Like a good modern playwright, Rothstein isn’t interested with demons or clear-cut evil: in this level of hell, there are just two ordinary people who—we hope—might overcome their loneliness. The writer’s penchant for natural dialogue would carry this show even with poor actors: thankfully, Rose and Joseph find their perfect matches in Geany Masai and William Jackson Harper.

The two are neighbors, but they’ve never met—the only thing they share in common is the terrible condition of their slum. To be honest, Rose hasn’t left her apartment in years, and when she learns that an old friend on the first floor dies, she just chalks it up as one of those things that happen to people who live on the ground floor. It’s understandable then that it takes Joseph five minutes to get through the front door, and that’s only because he’s delivering her mail, and then only because he promises to fix her toilet.

Now, Neglect wouldn’t be much of a drama if Joseph had no ulterior motives. With all Rose’s stories of old women being shot in their homes, it’s easy to view Joseph as a criminal (which is, I suspect, how most racist thoughts begin). Even after he explains he’s only looking for air conditioning, it’s hard not to be suspicious. But Joseph, expertly played by the charming Harper, isn’t looking to hurt anybody, and the majority of Neglect is a character study of unlikely friends. But it is hot as hell, and by the end of the play, necessity rears its ugly head (and not the one that’s the mother of invention). Try as he might to find an alternative, Joseph is driven to a desperate criminal act—the irony is that by this point it’s hard to see Joseph as a villain.

He has the perfect foil in the sturdy Masai. She squeals with delight even though she talks through the foggy confusion of age, and though she’s only the shadow of what she once was, we can see the regal authority of this big-boned, strong-willed grand-matriarch. Other times—and this is where Masai’s talent is most visible—we can see from her slump, staggered walk, and difficulty rising that the world has not been kind to her, and that the weight of the world on her shoulders has permanently ruined her.

We want these two characters to be healed by one another, or to find what they’re looking for: they are both so helplessly, hopelessly human. Catherine Ward’s wonderful direction, set within the stifling confines of a quaint living room, is sharp and focused, with a minimum of movement. Her deliberate choices keep our eyes on the characters, and once there, these two might actors thrill us with the slightest flicker of their eyes. Subtlety is too little seen in the theater, and it takes a confident director to trust the cast so far.

Neglect is a social commentary as much as it is a deep, character-driven dramedy, and the only real crime would be if this marvelous play were neglected in the years to come.

The Bank Street Theater (155 Bank Street)
Final Performances: 10/24 and 10/25 @ 7:00

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Great Conjurer

Kafka awoke one day to find himself in a play . . . The Great Conjurer is about the greatest magic trick of all--turning a blank page into story--and the toll that boundless creativity has on a bounded man.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Writers make for good characters: they’re tortured, twisted, and vicariously fragmented people. Christine Simpson’s new play, The Great Conjurer takes one of our most irregular writers, Franz Kafka, and shows, under the expert, smooth direction of Kevin Bartlett, how to enhance a traditional play with the use of classic and contemporary flair. For example, masks are used to make Kafka’s family, S, M, and F (sister, mother, and father) seem like the fictions, and stylized movements (choreographed by Wendy Seyb) give life to the internal struggle between a man’s art and a man’s love. As for Kafka, he is split into three characters: K, the man; N, the narrator (who cites from Kafka’s fictions and letters); and G, the creative “bug”—or Mr. Samsa himself—sent to physically pull K away from the real world. Set loose simultaneously, they overlap one another, building momentum in a surge of creativity until K is no more than an amanuensis for his crazed thoughts.

In this, The Great Conjurer brings to mind both the anguished writers of Chekhov’s The Seagull and Shakespeare’s conflicted Hamlet. K is a man of constant soliloquies, and at one point, when pondering how to release the worlds within him without tearing himself apart, goes so far as to say “That is the question.” The show is also littered with great lines (beyond the excerpted ones): “There is never enough time for endless hesitation.” The only ambiguous choice is the use of classical music to underscore the work. The music is quaint and sobering: it goes too far. It also causes some confusion to the director’s otherwise-brilliant set design: if the foreground is the real world and the background is the imaginary one (a solitary tree and a blackboard sit behind three transparent scrims), what do the musicians (who sit at the top of a staircase in the furthest recesses of the stage) represent?

Thankfully, the main characters are engaging enough to keep questions like this at bay, and at just over an hour, the show zips along too quickly to be distracting. Characters crash over one another like a multi-car pileup: you can’t not watch. Brian Nishii (G) is the most engaging (with his flailing limbs and bug-like squats), but they’re all talented: Paula Wilson (N) speaks with eloquence and understanding, using Kafka’s words to seduce the world around her, and Tzahi Moskovitz (K), illustrates the internal struggle to break back to reality, but also demonstrates a childlike delight in his own fantasies. However, it’s Sara Thigpen (Felice, Kafka’s love) who steals the show (at the cost of having her heart broken night after night after night). Whereas Kafka’s family comes across as a Greek chorus in reverse (keep in mind, their role is to destroy the narrative, not to foster it), Felice is the emotional center of the show, twice-engaged to Kafka, but, because of Kafka’s insecurities and obsessions, never married. That she doesn’t go mad after five years and 1,500 letters is a miracle.

The Great Conjurer is a thought-provoking display of the creative process. Though it is just a brief glimpse, one that is at times more performance piece than play, this little drama packs a lot into one hour. If you’re at all interested in the arts, this is a must-see: there is no greater struggle than that of an artist with his art.

Kirk Theater (410 W. 42nd Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $18.00
Schedule (to 11/4): Tuesday-Sunday @ 8:00; Saturday @ 3:00

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Season of Change: Marisol

Well intentioned and well produced by the Dreamscape Theater, Marisol is still an ambigious and uncompelling bit of theater about having to action and accountability for your life. Or simply a dramatic excuse to have babies spring from homicidal men as the world comes to an end.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

More poetically political theater than magnificent magical realism, Dreamscape Theater’s revival of Jose Rivera’s Marisol is a solid production of an insubstantial script. Rivera’s script bounces from a girl losing her guardian angel in a dystopic interpretation of the Bronx to a story about angels overthrowing God and the existence of hope in a world where Nazis go around lighting the homeless on fire. The real-world events that inspired such imaginative riffs are clear. But staged? They grow turgid due to Rivera’s need to justify. Oblique, Rivera’s work becomes hard to judge and can be taken as an experience; when it’s made transparent, it’s just piecemeal rambling. Beautiful as the language might sound—and Marisol is filled with great lines—a script that relies so much on happenstance and the recycling of characters cannot sustain itself for over two hours.

Shaun Peknic, the director, does an adequate job of setting the tone of the play. He places his punk-clad angel (Brittany Manor) on a ladder in the background, and when she approaches Marisol (Julie Alexandria), she seems giddy with love. As for Marisol, she seems like the type of woman to be perpetually harassed on the subway by strange men, and sure enough, that’s how the play opens. But Marisol is a play born of too-constant transformations, and it’s hard to see the arc in Alexandria’s character as she goes from a helpless bystander to the type of person able to kill in self-defense. As Alexandra plays the part, she is charming enough that we don’t want to see her raped by a sociopath, but she does seem more plausible­—more dramatically interesting—as a victim. Instead, she floats, like an angel, over the suffering. Deep into the confusing second act, when she dons some rags and wanders through the streets of a town that no longer has a South (or any direction, for that matter), we wonder why she’s just now collided with reality.

It’s hard to make the dream-like visceral, but that’s what Marisol calls for: it is a play where “angels...bored at night...write you nightmares.” And in the first act, where Peknic uses the physical—an ice cream cone thrown at our ingénue—it is painstakingly efficient. But in the second act, where hobos crawl from cave-like blankets only to be doused with imaginary gasoline and symbolically lit on fire, it’s harder to understand what’s going on. A baby born of silk scarves—by a man who we thought dead in the first act­­... well, that throws even imaginative plausibility out the window and unhinges the emotion from the commotion.

It’s a commendable effort by the Dreamscape Theater to mount this production—atmospheric shows are notoriously difficult on a shoestring budget­—and they pull it off. But what “it” is, and whether or not “it” is worth seeing...that’s the question.

Dreamscape Theater (
Hudson Guild Theater (441 W 26th Street)
Tickets ( $15.00
10/21 @ 8:00; 10/22 @ 7:00; 10/28 @ 1:00

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Modern Living

Modern Living is too much like research in search of a story to be an emotionally satisfying ninety minutes. But it's charmingly honest, with likeable characters, and Richard Sheinmel does something with them next time, he'll have a hit on his hands.

Nomi Tichman and Richard Sheinmel in "Sheila Mom," one of the three plays that, along with musical interludes, make up Modern Living.
Photo Credit / Stephen Mosher

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Richard Sheinmel seems like a splendid actor/playwright. He’s sincere and disarming, and his collection of plays, Modern Living, is an honest portrayal of the life of the artist as a young man. The intimate location of The Club at LaMaMa helps him connect with the audience, and the fabulous character actors of the ensemble convey even the most obvious one-liners with complete sincerity. But all three of the pieces, each a different genre, lack gravitas: they seem more like introductions to people the playwright knows than an expose on them. Furthermore, the lyrics to the musical interludes between each play, performed by Jordon Rothstein & the t.v. boys, were hard to decipher and didn’t really fit into the ouevre of Sheinmel’s storytelling. Modern Living is perhaps a bit too modern: it is so compartmentalized and scrubbed clean that for all its efficiency, it’s also a wee bit cold.

Shienmel’s first play, “Florida Mom” is a perfect one-act for the LaMaMa space. Though the action is straightforward, the meta-narration goes backward in time with a series of pleasing vignettes. But the only thing these scenes lay the groundwork for is a beautiful montage by director Michael Baron that fast-forwards through all the bits we’ve just seen, and straight to a conclusion. Though there’s no need for any of this stagecraft (the play could just as easily be sequential), this show at least attains a poetic gravitas, even if it resolves itself before the drama begins. The other two pieces are not nearly as bold: “Mister Fishkin” is a one-line joke waiting for the predictable punchline, and “Sheila Mom” does a better job paying homage to the Alphabet City of the early ‘50s (a time of Charlie Mingus, Max Roach, and Bill Cosby) than it does to any emotion. Like the characters, this is research in search of a story, and once Sheinmel commits to developing these characters, rather than briefly illuminating them, he’ll have a major work on his hands.

At best, Modern Living is a spotlight for talented actors like Christopher Borg, but without plot or emotion, it’s just a series of fragments, fading faster than morning dew.

LaMaMa: Theater of the World (74A E. 4th Street)
PERF. (through 10/29): Friday-Saturday @ 10; Sunday @ 5:30

Friday, October 13, 2006

Season of Change: True West

In this off-kilter, but otherwise straightforward production of True West, one actor's comedic choices bring a new dimension to Lee, but at a cost to the show's themes. Shepard's words are more vibrant than ever (having ripened with age) and the clash between action and text makes for an interesting night.

Zack Calhoon & Jordan Meadows in True West

Photo Credit/Frank Cuzler

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Sam Shepard’s True West is a play about two brothers, Lee and Austin, who are everything and nothing alike. Dreamscape Theater’s cartoonish production is, in turn, everything and nothing like True West—as much a riff as it is a faithful homage. Two separate plays happen simultaneously: a comic interpretation by Zack Calhoon, who plays the menacing Lee as a buffoon, and a serious one by Jordan Meadows, whose Austin is both bitter and adoring. Though I found myself put off at first by Calhoon’s antics, he sticks with it enough to present a dimension to Lee that other actors often gloss over with anger: petulant immaturity. At one point, Lee blithely remarks, “He must’ve been one of us.” He follows this with slapstick, sticking out his tongue and jabbing his finger at Austin—a needless expression of the subtext, perhaps, but also a charmingly satisfying one. I just wish it had more in common with the work director Kate Ross is doing, with her hyper-realistic kitchenette staging, her moonlit scenes, and the incessant sound of crickets.

Because of Calhoon’s unchecked sniping, many of the fraternal themes get lost to those of the fraternity: Lee scatters beer cans across the stage between scenes, belches often for emphasis, and talks in a cynical tone that doesn’t quite match that of a desert-hopping, cactus-talking, TV-stealing pariah. On the other hand, Meadows could be a poster-child for the freeway-driving, smog-eating, Safeway-shopping model citizen, and while the contrast between the two is appreciated, in this context, the two don’t compliment one another. All the chemistry ends up coming from Meadows, a talented actor who does justice to the climax, an act of psychotic adoration.

Shepard mentions that the true west is “grown men acting like boys,” but from Calhoon, we only get the boy, and from Ross’s lopsided direction, one can only assume she firmly believes boys will be boys (and has hence stopped trying to direct them). Where applicable, this production of True West is an engaging drama, but more often than not, it is also a comedic revue. You’ve given us our passionate, mild-mannered Austin; now gives us back our violent, unpredictable Lee—or at least agree to disagree.

Dreamscape Theater (
Hudson Guild Theater (441 W 26th Street)
Tickets ( $15.00
10/15 @ 7:00; 10/17 @ 8:00; 10/21 @ 1:00; 10/25, 10/27 @ 8:00

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Guys

The Flea Theatre
41 White Street/ Tribeca

I have avoided all dramatic dealings with the events of 9/11, whether news, documentary, political discussion, or art. I was here. I had moved to NYC the week before. My younger sister was living a few blocks away from the Twin Towers. I mostly categorize the events of that day within these personal parameters. Five years later, it is still too big for me to wrap my head around, but perhaps I am ready to begin. Maybe this is how most people have dealt with it and why we find ourselves more and more bombarded with theatrical material dealing with 9/11. People are ready to deal.

Forerunning the resent deluge, The Guys by Anne Nelson, was commissioned for the Flea Theatre in October of 2001. The theatre’s immediate response to the question, “What can we do?”, the play follows two characters asking the same: Joan (Grace Gonglewski), a writer, finds her peace in aiding Nick (Tom Wopat), a Brooklyn Fire Chief coming to grips with the lose of 15 members of his firehouse and struggling to pen 15 memorials for 15 funerals. Anyone who was in NYC after 9/11 recognizes this situation, whether they were directly faced with lose or simply feeling ineffectual- too many volunteers, too many blood donors. The world was different all of a sudden and where did you fit in?

I enjoyed the play, particularly Wopat who seamlessly wove conflicting emotions of a private life in fleshy moments of memory and grief, very real and effective without sentimentality. The play was most magnetic when Nick explored particulars of each fireman, illustrating the awareness of individuality and personal affection often unappreciated until too late.

The character of Joan was harder to swallow, skirting sometimes the political and other times the emotional, finding fullness to rival Nick in neither. In a continuous attempt to connect with the tragedy, Joan remains cerebral and guilt ridden- I don’t think the play let the character realize so much as lead the audience in empathy for Nick and his men. This is not necessarily bad, in fact it might be very realistic for this character, but her sentiments did not go far enough to illuminate, rather, sometimes they felt narrow minded. Most of the post-play discussion between me and my friends centered on how this character serves the playwright’s intentions, and perhaps this is part of the character’s purpose: a foil to gage your own opinions.

All in all, it was a touching investigation, well acted and gentle in leading the audience to meditate on where we were on 9/11, and where we are today personally, as a city, a country, and a world. I did crave a bit more dirt, a bit more controversy driven from the writer, who at points grazed matters of a global perspective and the American place with in that. Just a bit more would have sufficed. But I guess this is my homework, and stimulating this thought process is a good starting point. Time to turn on NPR.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Season of Change: Truce on Uranus

Absurdity is a good thing, but when the device trumps the message, it's gone too far. Mark Lindberg's Truce on Uranus has some fun with the writer-in-a-play conceit, but without characters to interact with, it's a one-author show.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Photo Credit: Frank Kuzler

Mark Lindberg has written himself into a tough spot: he's trapped on Uranus, a planet so cold that it's "too cold to live" and "too cold to feel cold," admitted that he's written himself into a corner, and been subdued by an ambivalent transexual alien who goes by the name Titania (the vocally gifted David A. Ellis). Lucky for Mark, he's only directing and writing Truce on Uranus, even luckier, the actor who plays Mark, Ricardo Perez Gonzalez, has charisma-and-a-half: that natural theatrical grace that makes us want to follow him across the stage, even when the stage, script, and underlying emotions are threadbare. When "Mark" complains to the audience about how difficult it is to write a play or to be in The Theater, it's compelling and believable. This is grounded in the artist's fundamental truth, even if the show itself, set on Uranus, is not.

That's the real kicker--whereas Edward Albee introduced fantastical lizardmen in Seascape to deliver a message about social acceptance, Mark Lindberg doesn't go far enough with his frigid landscape. Escapism's a fine theme, but from what? A fight with his boyfriend, Desi? If Mark needs to construct this much metadrama to reconcile his love, the play should reflect that. Instead, there are passionate monologues coupled with bland and ambiguous scenes, a pairing that so imbalances the show that the individual shifts between comedy and drama go unnoticed.

The problem--and this stems back to putting oneself into the play--is that everything's intellectual: Lindberg loses the message to the device. There are clever twists, like the way Lindberg overlaps scenes (characters in the background freeze as the material they're reading is recreated in the foreground), but then there's also Cassandra, a character within a play within a play who--oh yeah--also happens to be dead. Men have done sillier things for love, but was it really necessary (as Mark-within-the-play puts it) to obfuscate so much?

The concept shows promise, and Hannah Davis's lush, trippy set design (purple and yellow paper-mache mountains) gives the show a vibrant playland to live on. But the palette is mostly underused, and by the end of the show, it seems that Lindberg is simply flinging himself at the same few jokes, over and over again.

It takes more than keen excitement toward the ridiculous (see the curtain call), to build a show. But Truce on Uranus tries so hard for the big picture--"You'll just have to read the play and when you figure out what it all means, let me know"--that it misses out on character. Coupled with nerves, missed technical cues, and/or lazy direction, the dialogue starts to fill with yawning chasms of dead air and the lack of chemistry causes an emotional detachment that undermines the need for escapism.

We all need to escape; but theater has to bring us back, too. And until Lindberg reins in the absurdity long enough to establish character, Truce on Uranus is going to stay out of orbit.

Dreamscape Theater (
Hudson Guild Theater (441 W 26th Street)
Tickets ( $15.00
10/13 @ 8; 10/14 @ 1; 10/18, 10/20, 10/24, 10/28 @ 8:00

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Buried Child

Reviewed by: Nicholas Linnehan

A few months ago, I had reviewed a production of Buried Child, and said that the company had a handle on how to produce Sam Shephard's bizarre play about a family hiding a dark secret. While I stand by that, the production of this play by Nicu's Spoon revealed an even more unbelievable way to produce this work. Director, Stephanie Barton-Farcas led her cast with brilliance, intelligence, and heart. The show was powerful, moving, and surprisingly funny; a credit to her and the amazing cast.

The cast featured Wynne Anders as Halie, and Jim Williams as Dodge. These two grabbed a hold of the audience from the first moment and didn't let go until the last word was spoken. Simply superb! Also Darren Fudenske, a deaf actor, portraying Tilden proves that good acting is about doing and is alive in the body. His vocal limitations did not detract from the play as he played his part with sincere conviction that transcends any physical disability, thereby telling the story without losing his audience. No small feat. I could go on and on about this talented and connected ensemble of actors, who's tremendous honesty is so refreshing to watch. The production is quite impressive. This show is what live theater is supposed to be and proves that it still exists. Unfortunately, it is rare to see this kind of theater (even though its exactly what all theater should be); the kind that leaves its audience breathless and wanting more!

Buried Child plays from now through Oct 22nd at the Access Theater located at 380 Broadway. You owe it to yourself to see this one, trust me. Nicu's spoon hits a grand slam with this one, and if this is the kind of theater they produce, the theater community has a lot to look forward to.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Krankenhaus Blues

Sam Forman's new play Krankenhaus Blues, produced by Visible Theater is a treat for everyone. It is NOT a play about genocide or Nazism. While these issues surround the play, this piece is really about delving into the complexities of the human condition. Whether its sexuality, disability, incest, or low self-esteem, this work allows for its audience to enter into the dark and ironic world in which we live with its universal themes. The beauty of the play lies in its exploratory process of what it means to be human. It doesn't judge, but provokes one to search his/her soul.

The cast, which consists of Joe Sims, Bill Green and Christine Bruno serve the play well, as they give poignantly honest and inspiring performances. At first, the play seems disjointed and random, but Forman's playwrighting skills show as the play appealingly unfolds as do the relationships in them at a perfect pace. Green who plays the only non-disabled person shines, but he could use to slow down his speech as we lose some of what he's saying. Bruno mesmerizes us with her enchanting singing that frequently interrupts the play and adds a nice vulnerability to her character. Sims is powerful as the homosexual, clown. He delivers a top-notch performance here.

Krankenhaus Blues plays now through November 5th at the Abbingdon Arts Center on 36th St. You don't want to miss it!

Saturday, September 30, 2006


While everybody worries about the violent disasters of the world, Chad Beckim has put his finger on the pulse of an urban catastrophe. In 'nami, he explores ghetto life and working-class insanity (literally) and, aided by a talented cast and a gifted director, puts on an entertaining show, too.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Why is Chad Beckim going back to school for an MFA in '07? He's already co-founder and co-artistic director of the intriguing theater company Partial Comfort Productions, and his new show with them, 'nami, is a substantive showcase of urban life and social struggles. Beckim's material is intellectual, but written with the authentic voices of the working class: 'nami is more immediate and dramatic than some of the stuffy, sterile scripts that other companies put out. While not yet an epic writer, Beckim is on his way towards becoming a modern Odett (or an urban Shepard), and director John Gould Rubin shows a masterful vision (and love) of theater.

Heather Wolensky's set features a battle-scarred sofa, grimy windows, once-white curtains, and a lonely hanging ceiling fan. It looks and feels like a prison, and that's how it's used. For Lil (Eva Kaminsky), a mentally imbalanced woman who celebrates her fifteen-year anniversary by sleeping on the floor in her wedding dress, it's where she waits for her husband, Harry (Mark Rosenthal), to tell her what to do. For Roachie (Alfredo Narciso), it's a place he's always itching to leave, and for his girl, Keesha (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), it's a place to crash between double-shifts at a local McDonald's. It's the type of place where failing to pay the rent might make the local drug-dealing pimp cum slum lord, Donovan (Michael Gladis), force you to harbor a four-year-old girl while he tries to sell her into sexual slavery. It's a deus ex machina that comes early in the play and goes explored, but it gives us a reason to watch these lively characters, and Beckim doesn't leave a dull moment. If anything, there's almost too much action in the second act, but that's hardly a complaint, just a gasp for breath. (Violent, too, thanks to Qui Nguyen, the fight choreographer.)

Though there are two apartments, director John Gould Rubin uses the same set for both, which emphasizes the equally dismal circumstances of both couples. He also chooses to stage the transitions, too, using choreography to move the characters in and out of each other's scenes up until a climactic moment where two scenes take place simultaneously, yet separately. Good as Beckim is, he owes much to Rubin for tightening up the logic of the play. Eva Kaminsky deserves some respect too: her role as the often-hysteric (yet believable) housewife occasionally lapses out of character, but she keeps it in check. (About the abortion-they-don't-talk-about, she suddenly screams: "Strap me bare like some abandoned mine shaft.") The rest of the cast is excellent, particularly Quincy Tyler Bernstine, but their dialogue is more consistent.

'nami doesn't have an agenda, or a message to portray, and because of that, the work is entirely character based. People rise, and people fall, and watching our struggles through their struggles is a part of how great theater can pull us up from our lowest lows.