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.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A British Subject

As part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theaters, a beautifully produced play shines a harsh light on how effortlessly modern politics can wreck the lives of those that it finds inconvenient.

Reviewed by Ryan Max

The great irony of international politics is how effortlessly it can destroy the people it is, in theory anyway, intended to protect. Lives are wrecked between all those press conferences and handshakes and in A British Subject, the multi-talented Nichola McAuliffe has written and acted in a gripping (and true) portrayal of one man's fight to stop the geopolitical gears from grinding yet another person into dust.

The man at risk of being lost here is Mirza Tahir Hussain, a dual British and Pakistani citizen. In 1988, the then 18 year old Hussain was jailed for killing a cab driver in self-defense while visiting family in Pakistan. By the time any Western press outlets notice Hussain's plight, he has been on death row for 18 years. Don Mackay, a journalist for England's The Daily Mirror (and husband of McAuliffe), flies to Pakistan out of professional obligation but becomes obesessed with telling Hussain's story and winning his freedom.

Maybe it's a given that Don Mackay would be painted as a sympathetic character, seeing as his wife wrote the play, but Tom Cotcher's portrayal still works perfectly to get the audience behind his quest to free Hussain from prison. He is easily identifiable for a Western audience as a stand in for the average apathetic observer: glib, sarcastic, and numb to the horror stories that flood the media.

It is only when he meets Hussain face to face, in the play's riveting centerpiece, that Mackay's feelings shift. After he artfully gains access to interview Hussain--the first journalist to even attempt the feat in his 18 years on death row--Kulvinder Ghir, the actor who plays Hussain, gives a performance of languid motions and whispers that cut straight to Mackay's heart.

What allows the play to be engrossing, funny, and heartbreaking all at once is the near-perfect production. Lighting and sound are crafted for maximum effect, but restrained enough to skitter on the edge of melodrama without surrendering to it. A striated square of harsh light with a background of faintly buzzing flies transports the audience seamlessly from, say, the stuffy British ministry offices to Hussain's Pakistani prison cell.

In Hussain’s cell, the background sounds of traffic and honking that washed over the stage when Mackay was outside on the street fade, and the low buzzing of flies in the prison slowly gives way to a crushing silence. Hussain's words are so soft and slow, and the absence of any other sound so striking, that the audience becomes painfully aware of its own noise. Coughs and wheezes (it's winter in New York) become deafening as Hussain details the horrors of his life in prison. The effective restraint in tech and performance also extends to the dialogue: Hussain doesn't speak in easy prison cliches such as the stench, or beatings, or boredom. Instead, he explains how they can't even play chess anymore, because "with nothing else to do, people cannot bear to lose."

The second half of the play, dominated by Mackay's passionate campaign to publicize Hussain's plight, struggles to match the first half's breathless pace and palpable tension. At times it does, like when Mackay's wife (a role which has McAuliffe playing herself) shouts at someone explaining that “at least” Hussain’s execution isn’t until New Year's Eve: "While you're singing Auld Lang Syne, he'll be evacuating his bowels at the end of a rope."

That the play fails to wring any real drama out of the quest to free Hussain can be partially attributed to the facts of the story: the efforts took place mostly in Britain, mostly between people who weren’t in as desperate (or interesting) situations as Hussain himself. Transitions between scenes may still be seamless, but the locations to which they transport the audience are hardly worth visiting. Absent the tension of the first half, focus is drawn to the play's weaker themes, such as the relative merits of faith and reason, prayer and action as a means to spring Hussain. When these limp themes take center stage, it’s akin to the background sounds becoming the main dialogue, and it’s an odd position that the second half puts you in: wishing you were back in prison with Hussain.

A British Subject (75 minutes; no intermission)
59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street)
PERFORMANCES (through Jan. 3; no performances Jan 1): Tue 7:15, Wed-Fri 8:15 (except 12/31 @ 7:15), Sat 2:15 & 8:15, Sun 3:15 & 7:15

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Great Recession

The recession has affected everyone differently, and each outcome gives way to a story to be shared. Almost ironically, the Flea Theater has seized this as an opportunity to commission six playwrights to write short plays about the recession so far. Running from surreal and silly to schlocky and safe, the evening is half successful, with only three playwrights taking a big enough risk.

Ronald Washington and Amy Jackson in "Severed"

Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis

The Flea Theater has commissioned six playwrights to create individual shorts on their take on the economic crisis, entitled The Great Recession. The evening consists of lots of silence, a few laughs, but mostly awkward moments where the playwrights’ try too hard to be witty or relatable, only to make no connection with the audience at all. The exception lies when the playwright and director work together to create identify conflict and struggle in which to override any generic thematic structure. This only accounts for half of the production, however, and the back-and-forth of stark, memorable drama to predictable setups make the evening imbalanced. The anthology lacks coherence and tie-ins from piece to piece, losing something a little each time, and not quite ever gaining it back.

Starting the lineup is “Classic Kitchen Timer” written and directed by Adam Rapp, in which a young woman, Sarah Ellen Stephens (Lucy Norwood,) leaves her hometown to take part in a “social experiment” which, if completed, results in a grand prize of $25,000. Sarah begins to reveal the underlying conditions as she gets interviewed by the evening’s Host (Nick Maccarone). Her subdued responses and ensuing serious, lingering beats imply her concerns about the arrangement go beyond monetary reward. Norwood portrays Sarah with steely eye contact and a trembling, fearful delivery that leaves chills and builds tension and Maccarone, an eerie clown in white powder, red lips, and suspenders, engages the audience with the same congenial-yet-creepy demeanor he later extends to Sarah, generating both anticipation and fear. Rapp’s thirst for drama shows in his writing, and the situation he constructs here does a great job of combining personal ethics with financial constraints.

In the next play, “Fucked”, written by Itamar Moses and directed by Michelle Tattenbaum, a young couple, Cindy (Jessica Pohly) and Reed (Dorien Makhloghi,) squabble over a vacation funded by Reed’s father. This premise never gets off the ground, however: Pohly’s performance remains stuck in whiny melodramatic girlfriend gear and Makloghi, as Reed, remains apathetic and unresponsive, with halted, detached line delivery. “New York Living” by Thomas Bradshaw follows closely to Moses’ lead with even less success. Bradshaw’s characters lament about the recession in another modern New York setting, but again do not react as if truly affected. Jeff (Raúl Sigmund Julia,) an actor with a trust fund has had relationship trouble with his fiancée Jen (Morgan Reis,) and he redirects his emotions towards his costar Adrian (Anna Greenfield) in a play directed by David (Andy Gershenzon). This clunky and poorly-coordinated love rectangle never develops depth or dimension, relying instead on pulp dialogue and outlandish quick fixes to the problems at hand.

Erin Courtney balances out such a shaky intro with her play “Severed”. Under Davis McCallum’s direction, young, optimistic job-seekers perform interview-style monologues in the hopes of scoring a new gig. McCallum’s sincerity for her subject shows through and through, and never crosses the line to become preachy or moralistic (the characters don’t mention the recession at all). In addition, “Severed” has an amusing subplot that allows actress Amy Jackson to shine as a hungover daycare supervisor on her morning commute. Out of the fifty-something actors in The Great Recession, Jackson by far proves the most delightful with her smiley, giddy, and goofy performance. She knows how to cast it out for big laughs, but also how to reel it in and replace it with just as entertaining sass and sarcasm.

Also notable is Sheila Callaghan’s “Recess” in which eleven people share a one-room apartment refugee-style, relying on government authorization for everything from food rations to basic utilities, living without walls, telephones, internet or even proper clothing. Out of desperation and frustration these characters retreat and isolate themselves and then reach a point of hysteria before turning on each other. With its stark, terse writing and Kip Fagan’s brilliant staging and directing, Recess resonates with extreme drama and shock factor, surpassing all the other shorts.

“Recess” proves a tough act to follow, and “Unum” by Will Eno with director Jim Simpson leaves the entire evening on a low note. Set in an obscure American town where mortgage interest rates soar and money keeps getting printed by mint factory workers, the drama Eno tries to set up never catches. Instead, each dialogue exchange sags by unmotivated, unconvincing actors, and the generic complaints of tough economic times pile on, from job losses to the rise in healthcare costs. This effect of echoed, regurgitated jargon about unemployment and poverty feels strained and rehashed, and doesn’t do much to entertain and enlighten. While it does have its moments, The Great Recession by the Flea Theater plays it too safe to really hit home and resonate with the audience.

The Great Recession (2 hours; one 5-minute intermission)
The Flea Theater (41 White Street)
Tickets: $25
Performances (through 12/30): Mons.-Weds. @ 7pm, 10pm; Sats. @ 3pm, 7pm, 10pm; Suns. @ 3pm.

She Like Girls

‘Tis the season for cheery performances but if you are looking for something different these holidays, She Like Girls is about as far from The Rockettes as you can get. Inspired by a true story, Chisa Hutchinson’s play about a teenage girl and her first… girlfriend is honest, emotional, and – quite simply – well written.

Reviewed by Amanda Cooper

The fact that the main character – Kia Clark – is killed at the end of the play is no secret. On the playbill is an abstract image of a young woman getting shot (plus all the publicity makes mention of the true story that inspired this production). The drama here is not from the element of surprise, but from the inevitable.

She Like Girls is told from the perspective of a teenage girl who finds that she has fallen for a classmate. Whether watching scenes from her inner-city high school or getting glimpses of her hormonally driven dreams, we are made to sympathize with her struggle. Ironically, throughout the play it is Kia who seems to have it easy – we watch others deal with sickness, abuse, and even hate crimes – but in the end it will be Kia who will be hit the hardest.

The performers all come across as age-appropriate, and admirably embody their roles. They’re not “polished” performers, but that roughness jibes with the production’s content and aesthetic—urban teenagers struggling with their sexual identities. Special mention must go to Karen Eilbacher as Kia, who has clearly brought her character’s inner struggle to the outside.

What stays with the audience, however, is Hutchinson’s writing. She may still be growing as a playwright- similar to the actors—but her modest writing stirs up emotions and doesn’t patronize. What, I wonder, will transpire from her inspirations in the future.

She Like Girls
Working Man's Clothes
Ohio Theatre (66 Wooster Street) ($25)
Through December 30
photo by Michael Mallard

Seven in One Blow

With Seven in One Blow, Axis Theater Company has rewritten a classic Brothers Grimm tale (of a boy who kills seven flies in one swat and goes on to perform fearless feats) for a modern, child-friendly audience. In doing so, however, they’ve traded satire and irony for a watered-down, happy-go-lucky version.

Jim Sterling, Lynn Mancinelli, Brian Barnhart in Seven in One Blow / Photo by Dixie Sheridan

Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis

In the Brothers Grimm version of “Seven in One Blow,” a young boy kills seven food-stealing flies in a single blow. He makes a belt to boast of this accomplishment and seeks his fortune with his newfound bravery and cunning, unaware that everyone he meets assumes he has killed seven men. In the Axis Theater Company’s annual production, they have traded in all the satire and irony for a sappy version marketed to young children right before Christmas.

Randy Sharp’s new script and lively, cheerful direction, now features an androgynous female heroine, Kid (Lynn Mancinelli), who sports a cropped pixie haircut and a rough-and-tumble costume of work boots, navy khakis, and suspenders. After fashioning her belt, she leaves home— not to seek her fortune so much as to flee her workaholic, inattentive parents. What follows grows increasingly cheesy: the conversion of a materialistic king, QK (David Crabb), and his daughter, Princess Fartina the Beautiful (Britt Genelin), into thoughtful and considerate rulers; the calming of an angry Pea (Laurie Kilmartin) thanks to the children in the audience shouting out their love for the vegetable.

The script’s attempt to engage a young audience with its goofy cast of characters and simplified storyline emphasized by small sentences (most of which start with gee and end in gosh) comes across as a cop out—worse, as something purely commercial. The most audience-grabbing part of the play has nothing to do with the story, but with what the actors do with their one-dimensional characters, and the masterful crew behind all the bells and whistles.

In true children’s story fashion, the principal villains outshine the protagonist in personality and presence, and here the first to do so is Ogre (Jim Sterling). Stomping onstage with a bellow and a growl, Sterling terrifies and amuses at the same time, and like most ogres, makes up for his overwhelming brawn by being gleefully outsmarted. The Witch (Spencer Aste), serves the same purpose from an entirely different angle. Perfecting a falsetto screech and bob-and-weave leer all over the stage, Aste epitomizes a creepy old woman with his hunched-over demeanor and all-black ensemble. The Scarlet Pimpernell (producing director Brian Barnhart), though not a villain, is also a delight. Fretting and flitting about with a proper British accent, the Scarlet Pimpernell yearns for unconditional friendship despite his shaky personality, and Barnhart’s genuine, passionate performance warms up the entire production. The narrator (Marc Palmieri) also smooths out the play’s choppiness. His old-school Brooklyn accent gets so animated—as does Palmieri, always playing to the curious young audience—that plot holes are ignored in favor of audience participation.

Costume designer Elisa Santiago provides most of the play’s childlike wonder, with archetypal choices that help the audience recognize a Witch or an Ogre while still giving these images a creative twist, such as linebacker shoulder pads, bald wigs, and bucktoothed gap teeth. This works especially well with the traditional fairytale garb of capes, sashes, vests and boots, creating comical, cartoonish costumes without going overboard. Lighting and sound designers David Zeffren and Steve Fontaine work together with marvelous results, such as the blazing red and white light show when Ogre tries to kill Kid or the goofy gunshots QK fires into the air. Seven in One Blow isn’t the most memorable bit of children’s theater, but it does serve the purpose of a perfect holiday treat: sugary and colorful enough to be enjoyed in the moment.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Snow White

Snow White is a dance-theater show, part of Company XIV’s Apple Trilogy. A baroque-infused mix of opera, dance, and theater, adults and children alike will be delighted with this interpretation of a classic fairytale. Director and choreographer Austin McCormack presents this stunning production, which showcases the talent of Company XIV’s repertory performers.

Reviewed by Nicole C. Lee

We often forget the dark nature of many classic fairytales. The Big Bad Wolf wants to eat Little Red Riding Hood, and is later hacked to death by a hunter. Hansel and Gretel encounter a witch who wants to eat them, and they escape by trapping her in her own oven. In Snow White’s case, her wicked stepmother finds new ways to try and kill her, so that she can be the fairest woman in the land. Company XIV’s production of Snow White is no different: creator, director, and choreographer Austin McCormack has turned from the darkness to the visually stunning, using a delightful collection of dance, opera, puppetry. and theater to do so. The show is guided by Nick Fesette, who doubles as the show’s narrator and huntsman. Influenced by McCormack’s baroque dance training, Snow White showcases both classic ballet and modern dance.

The eclectic mix of music becomes an important character, too. (Ella Fitzgerald, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Louis Armstrong, and Alexander Glazunov are just some of the artists and composers that inspire the dances.) For instance, Charites, a baroque opera trio, provides the voice—a mellifluous and penetrating three-part harmony—of the Queen’s magic mirror, a fantastic choice for a fantastical object. A remixed version of the “Immigrant Song” enhances the guise of the Queen as a Russian seamstress—one of several ruses she uses to kill Snow White. Fun and invigorating, this range of styles showcases the immense talent of Company XIV. At times, the music drowns out some lines, but it’s hard to criticize that: it’s such an essential part of the show.

303 Bond Street looks to have been a garage converted into a performance space, and yet Company XIV has made it into an intimate black box. A translucent curtain provides a cleverly designed set that illuminates the puppetry of the seven dwarves and dance movement.

It is easy to be swept away by the dances in Snow White. In one scene, Snow White is wandering in the forest, lost and subjected to heavy snowfall. What follows is an elaborate dance featuring Snow White and three performers dressed in white—personifying the snow—intermingling and pushing Snow White around. It would be enough of a compliment to say that Company XIV’s production feels like a Disney movie being played out on stage, but it’s worth going further with praise: McCormack’s Snow White is a vivid and unique interpretation of a classic fairy tale.

Snow White, part of The Apple Trilogy (60 minutes, no intermission)
303 Bond Street (between Sackett and Union Streets in Brooklyn, NY)
Tickets: $20 for adults, $15 for children and seniors (
Performances: December 19, 20, 27 and January 2, 3, 9, 10, 16, 17 @ 3PM

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.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Traveling Players

The opening show of La Mama's 48th season, a play-within-a-play modern adaptation of Euripides' The Trojan Women by puppet savant Theodora Skipitares, makes for a visually impressive, if uneven, production.

Reviewed by Ryan Max

One by one, four enormous, gorgeous puppets rumble onto the stage. As each emerges at intervals throughout they play, she delivers a monologue detailing cruelties she has suffered, and then gives birth to a life-size puppet (strapped to an actor) that performs scenes from Euripides's The Trojan Women. The four giant puppets each represent a modern-day feminist: three from Africa and one, a young girl named Shamsia, from the Middle East. Shamsia's tale, which appeared in The New York Times earlier this year, is a harrowing one: on her way to school one day, bandits on motorcycles stop her and ask her if she is on her way to school and then spray her in the face with acid. Coming from a 13-foot-tall puppet, the monologue has an arresting and surreal sense of doom.

But her story also illuminates the serious pitfalls of hastily tying an ancient play with ripped-from-the-headlines vignettes. The Traveling Players, in its highly incongruous halves, fails to make a good case for its appropriation of Trojan Women. The monologues from the giant puppets and Euripides' tale are connected only very loosely: they are both about women being treated like dirt. With few other complementary aspects in the two pieces, little is gained from uniting the two in such an intimate theatrical space.

Deficiencies aside, the delights of the play—and there are many—are mostly visual. The lighting, alternating between stark, cold tones and warmer hues, is a gorgeous compliment to Theodora Skipitares’ hypnotic puppets. The life-sized puppets acting out The Trojan Women, affixed to actors wearing dark, full-body suits, are manipulated so gracefully they take on lives of their own. Hecuba, in particular, is entrancing as the fallen queen of Troy. And then there are Ms. Skipitares’ 13-feet-tall puppets, the stunning giants that sermonize about modern horrors faced by women. Their large, unwieldy nature relegates them to the background, but their looming presence is inescapable.

The play also attempts to integrate some more scattershot elements with varied success. The musical score, best described as "electro-tribal," provides a perfect atmosphere. An entertaining mini-play, acted out with small wooden puppets on sticks, tells the tale of a group of African women doing battle with the Chevron oil company. But a carnival barker that introduces each of the giant puppets before they roll out from backstage clashes with the solemn tone of the stories he sets up.

In the end the lack of purpose overwhelms the obvious skill and craftsmanship of the production. The very lyrical, deliberate cadences of the Greek play do not rest well alongside the more visceral, modern stories of the mistreatment of women in Africa and Afghanistan. When each monologue ends—by far the stronger half of The Traveling Players—and another sequence from The Trojan Women commences, it grows more and more difficult not to feel disappointed by the unnecessary and unimaginative portrayal of Euripides’ play. The friction between the play’s dual parts is exacerbated by its increasingly didactic scenes, like the one in which a woman in police custody cannot distinguish the stench of her own menstrual blood from that of a nearby animal carcass. But when the play ends and you just can’t shake those true-to-life monologues, it becomes clear that it is a rare case in which the facts outshine the legend.

The Traveling Players (1 hour; no intermission)
The Annex at La MaMa ETC (66 East 4th Street)
Performances: Concluded October 25

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

23 Coins

23 Coins is a provocative and intense play about the lies blind faith allows - but the fire and brimstone themes are no easy fit for the cheery song and dance structure. Come with an open-mind, and be prepared to leave unsettled. Just don't expect to be humming any tunes on your way out.

Isaac Thigpen (played by Oliver Conant) and Gin Walker (played by Rebecca Lee Lerman) practice what they’ll preach in 23 Coins.

Reviewed by Cait Weiss

Take Dora the Explorer, place her in the Baptist south, introduce an evil pastor. Add music.

23 Coins is a bizarre, provocative and deeply unsettling new musical about religious corruption and mutated genomes. As you may guess, this is an ambitious show. The title refers to the idea that each of the 23 genes in our DNA is decided by the flip of a coin; it’s a 50-50 chance whether we inherit the chromosome from our mother or our father, and that chance can dramatically alter our entire life and the lives of those around us.

Set in New Orleans during Katrina (this is never explicitly stated, but we seem in the 21st century and one character is killed in a storm’s flood), the show takes an unflinching approach to some very strong themes. We witness an admitted homosexual being sodomized by the preacher’s baton. We watch our preacher, Isaac Thigpen (compellingly played with both charisma and sadism by Oliver Conant) copulate with a clergyman’s disabled wife (played by Katie Labahn). We see our here-to-fore moral compass, Magic Parks (played by a deeply likeable Peter Quinones), let a woman die in the storm. These scenes are presenting without coddling and, often, without much warning. This is a rough world, and as the audience, we are compelled to witness this brutality. It is eye opening, but the view’s painful. Some things we’d rather not see.

We’re along for the ride, though, thanks to playwright and composer Mark Abrahams. He knows this isn’t the easiest material to digest, and so he sprinkles oddly gleeful songs throughout the action. Most songs function like the music on a Nikelodean kids’ show – introducing characters, blooming into ridiculous dance parties, and then, poof, disappearing back the real action at hand. While the lyrics can be compelling and evocative, the melodies are simplistic and uninteresting – and only the best singers in the cast even begin to justify the inclusion of music in this play. Rebecca Lee Lerman, playing the lead child, Gin Walker, has a voice that could stop any show – unfortunately, the song stopped the show first, grinding the action, character development, and audience engagement to a dead halt.

Still, 23 Coins is a show worth seeing. The musical numbers are few and far between, thank goodness, and the unsung dialogue is very strong. Much to its merit, 23 Coins takes a tired cliché (the old corrupted religious hypocrite leads his flock astray) and infuses the topic with such specific evil that the concept has fresh blood. For better or for worse, as we sit passively absorbing this action, watching trusted characters make questionable decisions and sing emotionally misplaced songs, that blood nearly ends up on our hands.

Mark Abrahams and directors Stephanie Barton-Farcas and Michelle Kuchuk sense our growing anxiety – as the end of the show approaches, the audience and the characters alike are asking, “How can this possibly end up alright?” Sadly, the answer lies in some extreme deus ex machina tricks. It turns out Gin Walker, at 9, knows all the secrets. It turns out she has contacts in universities working with DNA and genome therapy. It turns out the scientist ran a genetic test from the mother’s strand of hair. It turns out she doesn’t have the disease after all. It turns out the mother has been suffering from pseudo-seizures all along. It turns out the preacher is an extortionist caught – just at the right minute – by the law. It all turns out all right in the end. Abrahams seems to be saying, “See guys! This musical can too have a happy ending!”

Ridiculous, impossible, but better than having to believe that happiness itself is a coin toss. Better than having to believe that the adorable Gin Walker will be orphaned, abused and forgotten. Better than having to believe that homophobia, brutality, exploitation, and, yes, genetically inherited diseases not only exist but also thrive. 23 Coins takes the bad with the good – but I do wish the good were as full-blooded, as believable, and as compelling, as the bad. Without the unbelievable plot twists that end this otherwise insightful and compelling musical, the odds wouldn’t look too good for little Gin Walker. Dora the Explorer, though, might still do okay.


23 Coins (2½ hours; 1 intermission)

The Spoon Theater, 38 West 28 Street, 5 Floor

Tickets [ or 866-811-4111]

Performances [through 10/25]: Wed-Sat at 8pm; Sun at 2:30pm

Friday, October 09, 2009

My Illustrious Wasteland

My Illustrious Wasteland, by Tod Kimbo, is a fantastical, thrilling escape into the future. It’s science fiction, political satire, social commentary, and more, set to full-throttle rock music.

Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis

Tod Kimbo’s My Illustrious Wasteland welcomes us to an America only a few light years off, one where Hollywood is the new capital and the Democratic Party is a dictatorship. Kimbo stars as the President Reverend, overseeing a new nation that has merged Church and State. He embodies the well-written role with an icy presence and a commanding yet cynical voice. The rest of the cast takes just as much fun and pride in their roles, including Erin Lindsey Krom as Sunny, the President Reverend’s socialite wife (voted by the public as the best barely legal “eye-gasm”).

Despite trotting around the stage in a gold-sequined midriff shirt and matching hot pants, Sunny’s disposition argues against the dumb blonde stereotype, for she questions her role in society and her obligation to the American people who worship her. This is one of the many character studies in Wasteland that has empathetic appeal. Damian Shembel wins over the audience with his geeky idealism as Mogs, the son of a rock legend dead before his time. Rebelling against government mandates, Mogs refuses to take mood stabilizers and doesn’t buy into the propaganda surrounding Information Disease (a deadly illness contracted by acquiring unnecessary amounts of unregulated knowledge).

Shembel’s portrayal of Mogs works even better in scenes concerning Mogs’ mother Loretta (Arden Kelly), an overmedicated housewife with a pointedly apathetic Southern drawl. Their conflicting views on patriotic duty and social liberation resonate with how personal such material, which in other scenes can get weighed down with political and technological jargon, can be. Kimbo strikes the perfect balance between these two wavelengths with his depiction of the Realists, an anarchy clan squatting just outside city limits.

Given their role in the play as the rebellious outcasts, the Realists also have the most music (angst-ridden, dissonant tunes) and the most inspired costumes. Their ringleader also happens to be Mogs’ estranged uncle, known only as the Troubador (Jarret Mallon) a neat little tie-in to the rest of the plot, and a means for Mogs to finally escape Loretta. Dominating the stage in a leather jacket and trucker hat, Mallon’s swaggering give-a-care attitude and all-knowing smirk provide a much-needed energy to the show, even more so when he sings. In the opening scene he laments his disappointment for those content living within a conformist America; in “Dragonbelly” he delights in disclosing Loretta’s secret past.

Another Realist with great stage presence and singing capability is Dorothy Massy. Wearing mismatched patterned tights, a black tutu, and black army boots with the laces missing, Massy has a strong, deep voice made for rock, working just as hard as the rest of the cast and just as loud as the band backing her, with perfect instinct for when to blend as part of a chorus and when to shift gears for an upcoming solo. Costume designer Nicole Jescinth Smith completes this futuristic rock atmosphere, pulling inspiration from everywhere and anywhere, such as the all-black track suits with purple stripes worn by the President Reverend’s cronies or the paisley free-flowing frock worn by a big-haired Loretta during a flashback scene.

Kimbo’s rock score for Wasteland has the same tight consistency as the rest of the framework. Rising above being simple background music, the band works with the cast to convey the individual struggles of each character. Their transitions—slowing down for a rock ballad towards the end of the first act or easing up on the guitar riffs during the President’s self-realization solo in the second—connect with the audience. Drummer Paul Creed and keyboardist Matt Nichols sound the most skilled and effective, constantly in their element as a pulsing rhythm section working together, providing a backbone for the show. Welcome to My Illustrious Wasteland, an inspirational tale that provides hope not just for our future, but for the future of musical theater.

My Illustrious Wasteland (2 hours; one 10-minute intermission)
American Theater of Actors - Chernuchin Theater (314 West 54th Street)
Tickets [212-352-3101 or]: $25
Performances: Saturday October 10th @ 5pm

Monday, October 05, 2009


Megan Riordan’s autobiographical one-woman show Luck is us a dizzying glimpse of the life of a professional blackjack player’s daughter. Using nicknames, code words, and complex mathematics, along with the occasionally sobering monologue, Riordan gives the audience the one thing that Vegas can’t: a sure thing.

Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis

As the daughter of a professional gambler and raised in Las Vegas, Megan Riordan learned the “family business” as soon as she turned twenty-one. For her one-woman show Luck, Riordan has transformed a small black box studio into a casino-style cocktail lounge: dimly-lit, a black and red color scheme, with the small stage covered in green felt and a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. From the lighting to the tablecloths and chairs to her own sleek black halter dress with belted red satin around the waist, Riordan has created a surreal yet enticing experience, almost as if walking into an exclusive club only to find a carnival taking place.

The tiny, square tables with battery-operated square candles and cocktail menus add to the décor concept, as does the background music of old jazz and cabaret tunes (including Sinatra’s Luck Be a Lady). Riordan keeps up the carnival vibe upon taking the stage, beginning her play by shifting into game show mode. She distributes to the front row a hand of cards, for example, or two die, and takes her cue for the next scene based on these outcomes. A screen hanging over stage left dictates rules, so that Riordan may tell a story based on a dice roll or take a timed vocabulary quiz on casino lingo if a flipped quarter comes out heads.

In this sense, Luck lives up to its name, relying on chance to determine the show. It works, too: even Riordan’s momentary hesitations suit her role. With those wide doe eyes made even more effective with a thin layer of liner, pale skin and pouty red lips, Riordan is an alluring hostess, armed with a limitless supply of personal anecdotes, punch lines, and grins and winks that keep the show in high gear.

Not that she can’t slow down or drop that more-than-capable poker face to talk about her father. The smoke and mirrors subside as she divulges personal secrets on how she learned to gamble, as well as her reluctant real-life role as the all-too-loyal daddy’s girl desperate for approval and attention at any cost. In this capacity, the audience learns the burden that comes with always betting and relying on luck, and the cursed existence of fate without free will.

Directed by Dodd Loomis, who honors the vulnerable, volatile content of the show, Riordan shines throughout with all the anticipation and energy of a Vegas floor show. Whether winning the crowd over with a live raffle or reducing the same crowd to a string of held breaths as she remembers her father suffering a heart attack on Christmas Eve, Amy Riordan embodies Luck as a classy gal unafraid to divulge her past to strangers while at the same time throwing in some words of wisdom on whether the house always wins or whether being lucky at cards ultimately means unlucky in love. Her irresistible charm, sexy card-playing savvy, tough-girl bravado, and homemade Cheese Ball dip (offered to the audience before curtain), all make her new play a winning combination.

Luck (90 minutes; no intermission)
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
Tickets [ or 212.279.4200]: $25
Performances [through 10/11]: Tues. @ 7:30pm; Weds.-Fris. @ 8:30pm; Sats. @ 6:30pm, 9pm; Suns. @ 3:30pm, 7:30pm
[PERFORMANCES] (Schedule OR remaining days)

Friday, September 25, 2009

Frederick Douglass Now

Roger Guenveur Smith’s new play Frederick Douglass Now modernizes the slave-turned-activist’s letters and journals and adapts them for the stage. Using mixed media and passionate, rhythmic speech patterns, Smith targets many still-relevant social issues surrounding race and democracy. Smith’s ambitious, if not heavy handed, use of other additional traits linked to African America culture and heritage rejuvenate Douglass’ already resounding tone at best. At worst, it inhibits the entire piece to a fallback of predictable, ill-fitting pop culture highlights with little connection to Douglass’ original text.

Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis

Roger Guenveur Smith has certainly done his homework for his new play, Frederick Douglass Now. In studying Frederick Douglass’ writings he has also deconstructed them and reformatted them for a contemporary audience with contemporary themes. Each scene acts like a chapter, such as a letter to former master Thomas Auld, essays depicting his thoughts on the Seneca Falls Convention and enlisting black men to fight in the Civil War, and even an interrupting phone call from Harriet Tubman that allows his respect for her to play out in a one-sided conversation.

The opening scene places Smith on the narrow side of stage right, almost offstage, with a single spotlight slanted downward, washing his face in brightness while the rest of his body, as well as the rest of the stage, remains cast in shadows. He begins his first and best monologue slow and methodical, picking up the pace, volume, and energy as it progresses with stream-of-consciousness-style velocity. Starting out on familiar territory with the line “I am a fugitive slave”, Smith then spans centuries and state borders in an impassioned commentary fueled with bone-chilling clarity.

Smith swiftly embodies everything surrounding African American culture, from hanging out with Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lorraine Hotel and telling him to duck to teaching Jimi Hendrix how to play Foxy Lady to never liking Kool Aid to inventing chitlins and crack cocaine to tracing his royal legacy to the promise on a liquor bottle and ending with a tender implore to please tell him all this is just a Spike Lee movie. Smith’s brutal nonstop confessions grab the audience from the get-go through such an innovative interpretive approach and thrilling powerhouse performance.

By setting up such a tough act to follow, however, Smith proves to be his own worst enemy. The ensuing monologues pale in comparison despite the solid, sympathetic subject matter and Smith’s consistency as a powerful actor with obvious true conviction. The original content he contributes in the beginning fades towards the middle of the program, taking Douglass’ text word-for-word without any of the inspired rejuvenation found in the preceding scenes.

Towards the end Smith then takes too much creative license, relying heavily on chronic Malcolm X and Michael Jackson references, and transitioning into the final scene by playing a live Marvin Gaye recording of the Star-Spangled Banner. The play ends with Smith convulsing onstage, repeating angst-riddled liberal rhetoric on race wars, soldiers in Iraq, slavery, and the Rastafarian passive mindset, creating a bizarre blend of rap, reggae, and freedom song. While Roger Guenveur Smith makes a bold attempt to bring Frederick Douglass to life onstage, his own creative devices get in the way, trying to pack too much into a short piece, resulting in mixed messages lacking closure, unable to reach one clear conclusion surrounding a struggling African American population who still continue to face discrimination.

Frederick Douglass Now (one hour; no intermission)
The Donaghy Theater @ Irish Arts Center (553 West 51st Street)
Tickets ( or 212-868-4444): $50
Performances: through 10/25; varies in alternation with The Cambria

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Fathers and Sons

In Fathers and Sons, two men rehearsing a new play together find a way to relate to each other beyond the fabric of their work. Through introspective dialogue and heated arguments, the old, seasoned bit actor and young new talent share stories of growing up and fitting in, discussing everything from drug abuse to career decisions. Richard Hoehler’s new play gives a genuine insight into the male psyche.

Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis

Richard Hoehler has written and co-starred in a new theater phenomenon: a male-driven play that keeps the emotions running high and the testosterone in check. Fathers and Sons explores how two very different men (Hoehler as an aging, gay, Caucasian, New Jersey native and Edwin Matos, Jr. an immature, tough Latino from the Bronx) begin working on a play together only to reveal surprising core similarities. Using their real names for each respective character, Richard has written a new piece entitled Fathers and Sons to salvage his career, and co-stars Edwin, an unsure-of-himself Puerto Rican caught between his passion for theater and the blue-collar machismo surrounding his neighborhood and culture.

Their rehearsals include arguments over getting lines memorized and rewriting scene endings, but also personal anecdotes about fathers to help identify character breakthroughs and closures. Over time both men expose where they’ve come from and how they’ve turned out a little more, and Hoehler reveals all this with astounding clarity. Each discussion evolves without any transparent needling, and the heavier subject matter surfaces with natural evasiveness, never forced or browbeaten, a vague comment here, a well-placed beat and break of eye contact there.

The well-balanced play weaves in and out of Richard’s script with lightning speed, Edwin and Richard wrapped up in raw emotion one minute and broken out of character the next with playful banter as they move set pieces around for the next scene. Lighting designer Michael Abrams works wonders here, creating jarring, dramatic shadows against stark lighting during rehearsals and then washing the entire stage in warm undertones when the scene ends. Abrams’ creative execution and on-point cues go beyond good lighting: it helps establish conflict and dynamic between characters, as well as their own volatile chemistry. Throughout the play Richard and Edwin strive to reach a mutual understanding. Richard nags Edwin about being late for rehearsal, Edwin doesn’t know how to achieve to the dual role as the lead male both onstage and within his own family. Instead of cashing in on the coming-of-age setup where the young buck wises up and the kind mentor extends forgiveness, their testy dialogue and below-the-belt insults keep the play real and relatable.

Art also imitates life with Matos, Jr., cast as the young star unaware of his own talent, which holds true for both his character and his acting. Matos, Jr. gives a cunning, convincing performance brimming with emotion and adaptability. He runs the spectrum of a husband battling alcoholism after his estranged father pops up to someone too embarrassed to bring his illiterate immigrant father with him on a college interview, to the main role of the actor Edwin, a softhearted yet macho street kid still uncomfortable doing theater with an older, gay mentor. Combined with Hoehler’s poignant writing Matos, Jr. helps the play to transcend stereotypes by both breaking out of them and breaking them down.

The set and sound design also help to define the tone of each scene. Set designer Todd Edwin Ivins has envisioned the perfect live/work studio for Richard. The closed quarters comprises ratty furniture and a gray-metal paint job, industrial coat hooks, stray set equipment strewn about, with the rehearsal space downstage and a duvet overhead, accessible only through a fire escape-style ladder bolted to the upstage wall. Scott O’Brien’s original tear-jerking piano score mellows everything out, providing expressive breaks in the script such as the silence after Edwin nails that confessional monologue or the final parting scene. Directed by Chris Dolman, who makes sure each scene goes for the jugular while allowing the well-written characters and capable actors to drive the piece, Fathers and Sons shows men in a touching, standup capacity. Lacking violence and profanity, these male characters instead have a very universal framework, and since they serve a purpose beyond mere plot device (the aggressor, the purveyor, etc.) it gives them a greater need and relevance here, and the chance to see men act human.

Fathers and Sons (90 minutes; no intermission)
The Lion Theater @ Theater Row (410 West 42nd Street)
Tickets ( or 212.279.4200): $25
Performances (through 10/4): Weds.-Sats. @ 8pm; Suns. @ 3pm

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Reviewed by Ilana Novick

Anita Bryant has long been seen as a punchline: she’s most known for getting pied in the face by protestors who hated her anti-gay activism. But David Carl Lee wants to earnestly tell her story—Pie Face: The Adventures of Anita Bryant—and of how she affected his own identity as a gay man. His subtle use of drag allows us to mock her politics and take them seriously at the same time, and this makes Bryant’s transformation from a promoter of products (a beauty queen for orange juice) to a promoter of hate.

Lee’s got the dress, the big hair, and colorful makeup, but his gestures are restrained, and his voice is softened: he straddles the line between campy and sincere. He clearly hates her work, and yet he’s making a conscious effort to get inside her head, to understand her. When he portrays Bryant being pied, his lip quivers and his eyes widen in disbelief, as if empathizing with how that feels. But as the pies keep coming, the shows falls squarely into camp, and that’s when it goes downhill. Equal rights and gay marriage are timely issues, but the play doesn’t have enough time (or performers) to fully explore all of the issues it hints at. It seems rushed, the stage constantly turning from a hotel room (meant to represent Bryant’s national tour) to her home in Florida, to the Miss America set, using only a few changes in lighting, and barely any changes in furniture.

Also, the question remains why Lee would want to bring Bryant up in the first place—though the movement she led is very much alive, she’s more of a historical footnote now. In 2009, which Proposition 9 fresh in America’s memory, and slew of recent cases where states pass their own laws allowing gay marriage, it’s just not as satisfying seeing pies thrown in the face of the intolerant, no matter how successful they were in 1977. Despite a great performance from Lee, the play itself can’t quite maintain the balance of satire and biography.

Pieface (Run Time; Intermission(s)?)

Fringe/Poppy!: An Enchanted Evening with Poppy Bulova

Poppy Bulova, a lighthearted parody of a hardscrabble, down-and-out lounge singer, uses her hauteur and strange life story to charm her audience into the adoring fans she firmly believes she deserves.


Reviewed by Ryan Max

Ms. Poppy Bulova—a performer of incredible talent, fame, and self-regard—would not have liked the scene just outside of her recent performance. As happens with the venue-sharing turf, a large crowd of theatergoers was huddled in the lobby, waiting for another show. When the lobby had emptied, only a handful of people remained to see Poppy!: An Enchanted Evening with Poppy Bulova. How could they possibly be so near and still resist the powerful allure of Ms. Bulova? As she makes very clear, she is “much more interesting” than just about anyone else.

The lucky few that remain fill the small tables around her stage, and the intimate, lounge-y atmosphere is all the better for it. For Poppy, any sort of captive audience will do. The fairly bare space (a microphone, a piano, and its player) makes sure that when Poppy enters wrapped in a bright Asian gown, all eyes are on her. After some cursory introductions, she launches into a beguiling hour of stories and songs that detail her very strange life. Her ambiguously accented English (think Paris by way of the Ukraine) has a sweet, disarming quality, so much so that you hardly mind when you are lumped in with “all of the small people…who don’t really matter,” as Poppy so gently puts it.

Lillie Jayne—who, in addition to playing Poppy, also wrote, directed, and produced the show—keeps things lighthearted, even when detailing Poppy’s oddly tragic life (“toddler alcoholism and amphetamine addiction”). She also saves Poppy from being a character of Mel Brooksian (that’s a thing, right?) hyperbole. The engaging interludes between songs—in which Poppy explains her experience of puberty (“I make tits”), the origin of her exotic accent (“an island out in the Atlantic Ocean…Long Island”), and her eventual rise to superstardom in films that don’t exist—blend very organically into the show. Songs may be inspired directly by, say, her proclivity to alcoholism (“I drink to get drunk”) or spring from more obscure sources. Basically, whatever Poppy feels like singing about. And throughout them all, it is the clear disconnect between her view and the reality of her situation that makes the show so ceaselessly charming.

The songs that form the backbone of Poppy’s story—tapped out on the piano by her one time lover Fagen Beauregard (a mostly silent Michael O’Dell, who also arranged the music)—consist of simple, catchy melodies. But while the music may be simple and Poppy may be a parody, Ms. Jayne’s voice is legitimately gorgeous. She can alternate from a strong warble on the more rambunctious songs, to an intense Bjork-like whisper on the unexpectedly poignant “Black-Eyed Soldier.”

Toward the end of An Evening with Poppy Bulova, Poppy describes one of her many encounters with obscure (yet impressive, she assures us) Hollywood figures. He tells Poppy that one of her recent shows was awful because it “didn’t seem regretless.” And he is dead on about what makes Poppy so easy to enjoy: it is freeing to surrender your time to someone so sublimely confident and convinced of their own fame and glamour, regardless of whether they deserve to be. She is the beginning and end of the show’s strengths, weaknesses, charm and appeal, and that is why this review will end right where it began: with Ms. Poppy Bulova.

FringeNYC 2009: Poppy!: An Enchanted Evening with Poppy Bulova (1 hour)
CSV Cultural and Education Center, Flamboyan (107 Suffolk St.)
Performances: Concluded August 29

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


Powerhouse ran as one of the 201 shows in the 2009 Fringe Festival; it is now being extended as part of the Fringe Encores series and runs at the Actor's Playhouse (100 Seventh Avenue South) on 9/19 @ 5, 9/20 @ 12:30 & 6, and 9/21 @ 3. Tickets are only $18, so go get 'em.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Why are they called Sinking Ship Productions? Their latest show, Powerhouse, is absolutely buoyant--in fact, it's a downright elastic twist on the biographical drama. It's what Aaron Sorkin's The Farnsworth Invention would have been if set to music: thrilling. Rather than give us an exacting recreation of "the brilliant but forgotten composer Raymond Scott," they recompose his life in the same way that his catalog of music was used when sold to Warner Brothers. The play opens with Scott (the excellent straight-man, Erik Lochtefeld) addressing the audience, explaining his interests, but what we're drawn to is the cast, which is briskly assembling a many-drawered set behind him--in time to one of Scott's songs. It's the first of many overlaps or exaggerated scenes that spring Powerhouse forward, all larger-than-life.

There are a lot of congratulations in order, here. Josh Luxenberg and Joshua Morris have written a wonderfully creative play, which neatly bounces from narration to scenes, often doing both at the same time, so as to remind us how much Scott remained in his own world. A perfect example--and one that also illustrates Jon Levin's distinctive direction--is Scott's first wedding, in which he is suddenly whisked up in his chair, spun around on a desk, and still trying to conduct (and conduct interviews) as his wife looks for him. Given the span of the show, it's necessary to compress events into montages like this; it's impressive that these montages are so expressive.

Another of the nice balances in the show is between the slowed-down quieter moments--for instance, when Scott teaches Dorothy (Hanley Smith), his future second wife, to sing--and the quick and noisy ones, in which members of the ensemble each grab a limb of their cartoon puppets and cohere to perform slapstick shorts. (Eric Wright does a terrific job as the voice of both the egotistical blue-footed booby and the suave otter he's in competition with.) In truth, everything comes together: Carolyn Mraz has festooned the desks with drawers for every occasion, from the magical televisions within (each with their own mini-puppet shows) to a cache of clothing buried within Scott's time-consuming invention, the Electronium, which is used to great effect when Scott's second wife walks out on him.

This isn't just an ambitious show for the Fringe festival: it's the creative standard to which companies should be pushing themselves. There's no need for a scale of 1 to 5 on this review: Powerhouse is back for the Fringe Encores series, and it should go on to an extended run.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009


Viral ran as one of the 201 shows in the 2009 Fringe Festival; it is now being extended as part of the Fringe Encores series and runs at the SoHo Playhouse (15 Vandam Street) on 9/14 @ 9, 9/20 @ 1, 9/24 @ 7, 9/26 @ 2, and 9/27 @ 6. Tickets are only $18.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The most addictive thing about Mac Rogers's writing is that even when his characters say the darnedest things, you never for one second doubt that that's exactly what they'd say. In his new play Viral, the line that hits home is when the tightly wound Colin (Kent Meister) turns to his sweetly nervy sister, Geena (Rebecca Comtois), and warns her to be very careful "not to give [Meredith] any idea that there might be a reason to stay alive." Meredith (Amy Lynn Stewart), by the way, is a commandingly rational and direct depressive, who has come to Colin looking for a way to painlessly die...and Colin desperately wants her to go through with it so that he can film her final moments. And no, it's not sweet or anything, as their associate Jarvis (Matthew Trumbull) reminds us every time he gets that wide-eyed look and runs off stage to go masturbate. Or--and this is how good and oddly plausible Rogers's writing is--maybe it is sweet: Colin wants the footage because it's the purest form of their sexual fetish (a snuff film being the exact opposite of what they want).

The entire production is terrifically done, from Jordana Williams's staging of an Internet chat room to her comic uses of props (like a pizza box, a sofa cover, or the video camera), all of which enhance our understanding of each character, and drastically expand the canvas on which Rogers is so fervently painting. The only element that seems a bit over-the-top, all things considered, is Snow (Jonathan Pereira), a sleazy underground film producer who Colin plans to sell the tape to. Still, even these scenes serve a valuable purpose; in this case, they provide us with a deepened understanding of Meredith's condition--her willingness to do whatever it takes to simply die.

Of course, nothing's that simple--and that's where the cast really shines. Trumbull and Comtois often get typecast (because they do it so well) playing neurotic or ditzy--but in Viral, they play full-on characters, all the more richly human for the fact that they're allowed to acknowledge their embarrassing glory. And then there's Stewart, who manages to show the complexities of her inner conflict without ever losing her surface cool--until it's appropriate to do so, that is. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Absolute box-office poison," and 5 being "More addictive than love," Viral gets a 4.5.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Fringe/A Midsummer Night's Dream

Reviewed by Nicole C. Lee

It’s all about the actors in The BAMA Theatre Company’s production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Simplicity is the governing theme: the set design is simple; the performance space is denoted by blue masking tape laid down by the actors at the start of the show. This allows all focus to be on the performers, and the audience is not disappointed. The eight-member cast takes on all 22 characters in this comedy about what happens when supernatural beings meddle with love.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is perhaps one of the more confusing Shakespeare tales to tell, so to aim for simplicity with this show is wise. It features three interlocking plots among three completely different groups of people: supernatural creatures, royalty, and the lower class. The eight-member cast takes on the task of portraying characters that total nearly three times their number. Notable roles such as Puck and Bottom are challenging in and of themselves, but Chris Roe and William Brock, respectively, put on strong performances. All of the actors do a superb job of not only differentiating each of their multiple roles, but making them their own. Nick Lawson, for instance, portrays an edgier Lysander. One could see him as easily comfortable on the streets of contemporary New York as in the palace in Athens, where the play is set. Simple and distinct items of clothing assist the swift transitions between characters and scenes. For example, a black pair of broken glasses is all Alison Frederick needs to go from playing Moonshine among the troupe of actors to the regal Hermia at the palace. The simple costume changes allow the cast to avoid confusing the audience about which character they are portraying at any given moment.

Director Peter Macklin is very loyal to Shakespeare’s text, and the simplicity of the show – in lighting, set, and costumes – allows the actors to bring the story to life. Much like Olympic gymnasts, the actors never step past the blue line unless they are “off-stage”.

Overall, BAMA’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a delightful interpretation of one of the more difficult Shakespeare plays to perform. Though there are as many leading roles as there as actors in this cast, the production highlights the strength of a good ensemble of actors.

FringeNYC 2009: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 10-minute intermission)
The Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street)
Tickets: $15 (
Performances: concluded August 29

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Fringe/Love Money


Every cloud has a silver lining. Just for kicks, let’s call that cloud the collapse of the modern economy. Fun game, huh? Well, if that’s the case, and the demise of the American Dream really is just another rain cloud, at least Love Money provides a mighty entertaining silver lining.

A clever, quick-witted take on the post-bail-out world, Love Money, like many a now-poor Wall Street broker, is rich in talent and nerve. For a show that challenges, taunts and teases the value of money, it’s certainly well worth its full ticket price.

Love Money takes place mainly around an executive assistant’s desk. He, Sean Wickens (the endearing Lucas Kavner), lives to serve the love of his life, the bank Chairwoman, Sarah Foote (Ali Kresch). Sarah, however, pretty much embodies avarice and self-indulgence; having secured 61 billion dollars in federal bail out funds, she quickly blows the money on, among other things, an aquarium full of Dolphins, a small island off the coast of Madagascar, and Johnny Depp. Her best purchase by far, though (at least from the audience point of view), is a live band in her office. This band, fittingly named The Suits, is on-call to support her wish to break into money-loving rock songs at the drop of a blue sequined hat. Led by Thompson Davis, the band not only rocks out in that wonderful post-punk, pre-emo kind of way, they also act as a modern day Greek Chorus, weighing in on the action and advancing the plot when necessary.

Along with Thompson Davis, and fellow bandmates Nick Barone, Matthew Leddy and Chris Rominger, actress, singer, and overall powerhouse performer Judith Dry steals the show. Playing Sarah’s crippled, crunk-dancing mother Brooke, Judith is a riveting, ball-busting mix of Ethel Merman’s Rose and Carol Burnett’s Miss Hannigan. It’s a joy the show gives her so much good to work with – and a pleasure to watch her take it all on.

Created by Thompson Davis, Lucas Kavner, and Willie Orbison (who also plays the main role of Joe Schmitz, an ill-fated temp with a MILF-adoring heart of gold), Love Money is full of tight writing, timely jokes, and a plot that moves as fast as stock values on Black Tuesday. Surprisingly, while the play ends on a low note, the audience leaves feeling pretty good. The show is so compelling, so enjoyable, and so dead-on in its satire, that even decimated by materialism, we leave humming songs about love. Not such a bad silver lining after all….

Saturday, September 05, 2009


Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Etch Dance Co.'s Testify is a display of athleticism and dance tricks that is high on energy, but low on tangible emotion. Artistic Director and Choreographer Elisha Clark Halpin's 30-minute, contemporary dance presentation is supposed to embrace what lurks in women's hearts, but the execution is frenetic instead of heartfelt, and overwrought when it could have been simpler. Not that emotions are simple. But the way they are packaged here-in “jagged and angular” movements that are piled on top of one another too quickly to ponder-is offputting instead of inviting. As a result, the troupe of six often look like gymnasts approaching difficult moves when they dance. The soundtrack, consisting mostly of Jazz tunes by Nina Simone and Etta James, tries to tell us that the dancers have the blues, but only Allison Alemi in “Since we met” and Halpin in “All I could do” express themselves in a manner that befits the love songs. They are the only dancers that are convincing, even if Halpin's dress isn't: the fabric doesn't have enough give for the electrifying steps that she has designed. “Stepping into Darkness'” story about warfare in Darfur is poignant, but Megan Moore, Lauren Steinke and Caitlin Rogowski have way too much to do in the time allotted. Testify may make many statements, but too many of those are witnesses against the importance of emotion instead of for it.
Testify (Running time: 30 minutes)
The Robert Moss Theatre (440 Lafayette Street, 3rd Floor near Astor Place and East 4th Street)
Tickets: $15.