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, January 30, 2010

A Doll's House

Anthony Castellano writes, directs and produces a flawed production of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” Although this modern adaptation is promising, it suffers from poor writing and direction, failing to leave the kind of impact Castellano intends.

Reviewed by Nicole C. Lee

A modern adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House sounds like a good idea. Anthony Castellano sets his in a 1958 New England town, in an attempt to contextualize the setting for a contemporary American audience.

By setting the play on the cusp of the Feminist Revolution, Castellano makes A Doll’s House speak more directly toward the constrictive nature of marriage on women. Nora (Jessica Cermak) is the ideal 1950s housewife and mother to husband Torvald (Perri Yaniv). Cermak’s portrayal of Nora is complicated, and at times, annoying. Throughout the first act, Nora is whimsical, bubbly, and materialistic. She hides the macaroons that she likes to indulge in when Torvald isn’t looking. She seeks his love and affection, sweetening him up to ask for money and favors. All of this paints a picture of Nora as a cheerful and obsequious child. But things are about as subtle and sudden as on a soap opera. In the second act, Nora suddenly shifts from seeking her husband’s love and approval to vehemently hating him.

Castellano has kept the essential moments and plot points of Ibsen’s original (Nora has borrowed money from Nils Krogstad to save Torvald’s life; widowed friend Christine seeks a job from Torvald; and Dr. Rank secretly loves Nora). He even tries to colloquialize the language in his script to naturalize and contemporize the dialogue. But what ends up happening is a feeling of distance by the actors from their lines; we never feel like the actors are committed to the things they are saying. Again, like a soap opera it’s just a conveyance from plot point A to plot point B, and it’s made worse by the lack of chemistry, their poor timing, and constant line flubbing. At least a soap opera can reshoot a scene; live, it turns realism into farce. The show also drags, making one wish for a comfy couch and a fast-forward button.

Thankfully, the second act is much more exciting than the first. The best moment in the show is when Nora confronts Torvald about treating her like a doll in his perfect house. It’s the perfect time for Cermak to come alive: at last she’s realistic and believable. All of the ridiculousness and annoyance that surrounded her in the first act is ameliorated by this new, fully conscious and socially aware Nora. Castellano’s plan connects, too, as the gender construct of marriage in the 1950s comes to light! It justifies, if only slightly, Cermak’s earlier portrayal of Nora. Even if Cermak chose to portray Nora with the intent of highlighting her transformation, this decision—and the audience’s realization of it—arrives a little too late. By this time, the audience is ready to high-tail it right out of the theater with Nora.

A Doll’s House has its moments; particularly during lines that bring the motifs of Ibsen’s work to life. At one point, Nora says, “It is much easier to be a man than a woman.” During their argument, Torvald tells his wife, “Appearance is everything,” to which Nora responds with the line, “I must think for myself.” These lines clearly reflect Hip Obscurity’s mission to explore modern, relevant issues.

The original play condemns the traditional gender roles in 19th-century marriage. This production seeks to make the play more relevant by setting it in the equally rigid environment of The United States in the 1950s. But this amendment isn’t enough. With further development and writing revisions, A Doll’s House could be a wonderfully provocative production that confronts issues of gender we still face today. As it stands, Castellano’s poor direction is only further hindered by a lackluster cast.

A Doll’s House (approximately 2 hours, including one 10-minute intermission)
American Theatre of Actors (314 W54th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues)
Tickets: $18; $15 for students (
Performances concluded on January 24, 2010

Friday, January 29, 2010

Rough Sketch

Shawn Nacol’s new play Rough Sketch takes place in a cartoon studio over Christmas break where two coworkers strive to complete segments for an overdue, over-budget film. Shocked to find the other had the same idea to forgo holiday celebrations and come into the office instead, the characters alternate between ignoring each other, guarding their assignments to prevent plagiarism, and reaching out in tender moments for companionship.

Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis

It’s Christmas Eve and the work studio at Doodle Ranch productions has officially closed its doors for the week-long break, including dimming the lights and turning off the heat. This doesn’t stop two of its employees however. One wants to get a head start on finishing the animated film Coffee Beanies, and the other just didn’t have anywhere to go for the holidays. Barbara (Tina Benko) enters the office with a bag full of necessary provisions for a working bender: bottled water, vitamins, instant hot soup, and meal replacement bars. Dex (Matthew Lawler), on the other hand, hears Barbara’s actions and crawls out from under his workspace where he has been asleep, a wasteland of empty soda cans and junk food wrappers.

Nacol’s script relies mostly on insider knowledge of the animation industry, such as computer graphics and technology, or the reel-editing machinery referred to only as “the tank”, which often loses audiences and creates long, anticlimactic scenes. What brings it back are the passionate performances of Lawler and Benko, whose frenetic chemistry of worrying about their personal lives one minute and arguing over Walt Disney’s rose-colored worldview the next, maintains the play’s overall momentum.

As Barbara, a tall, no-nonsense blonde, Benko has an air of confidence and authority with a monotone and factual line delivery, rivaling Julianne Moore in The Big Lebowski. As the token computer geek to Dex’s old-school approach of hand sketches, Nacol gives Barbara the brunt of the script’s technical jargon. Nacol has also made her the straight woman to play off Dex’s unobtrusive optimism. After hurried and rough sex Barbara retreats from the encounter (and Dex’s embrace) with detached perspective; she complains the endorphin release caused by orgasm will now make her sleepy and unable to work, and comments on hers and Dex’s pheromone reaction.

Lawler’s character, Dex, in turn is underdeveloped. As a pudgy, middle-aged divorcee who lives off the working vending machine onstage, he mainly putters around stage looking for distractions and ways to procrastinate. He spreads out on the floor and lies on his belly to doodle, for example, or plays with one of the many toys nearby. Despite such a simple character, Lawler brings everything he can to the table, from spontaneous, stuttering outrage when he can’t stand Barbara’s obnoxious behavior anymore to a vulnerable near-breakdown when discussing his relationship with his daughter.

Director Ian Morgan uses the tiny stage in a black box theater to implement the lack of privacy between Dex and Barbara, an all-too-relatable feeling for anyone familiar with cubicle life. Amith A. Chandrashaker’s lighting design also plays well off the black box framework, using the darkness and shadows to give a sense of time passing and midnight oil burning away through chronic fade-ins and fade-outs. Brightening up the stage is set designer Peter R. Feuchtwanger, whose whimsical and inventive approach litters it with action figures, stuffed animals, and posters of big goofy cartoons. A stunning and sobering behind-the-scenes portrayal of the cartoon industry with a heartfelt undercurrent that looks into the life of lonely workaholics and single dads, Rough Sketch makes the final cut.

Rough Sketch (Two hours; one 10-minute intermission)
59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street)
Tickets ( $18
Performances (through 1/31): Fri-Sat. @ 8:30pm; Sun. @ 3:30pm.

Radio Star

The year is 1941 and weekly radio suspense detective narratives have their listeners hooked. Written in classic style with schlocky, self-aware flair, Tanya O’Debra’s Radio Star is a thrilling throwback that lets modern audiences see a one-woman radio show.

Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis

Though Tanya O’Debra merely sits on a barstool placed center stage, she winningly brings all the characters of this riotous, original show to life. Radio Star is a playful spoof on classic radio-drama noirs, so her fun-loving and colorful performance complements the witty and fast-paced script, glamorizing and dramatizing the genre without taking it too seriously. O’Debra slips in and out of characters with deftness and ease, playing all the characters with equal accuracy and devotion, creating voices, vocabularies, and overall oddities for each of them, bringing a contagious energy to each role.

The plot follows the basic hard-boiled detective formula: a woman hires a private eye to find her husband’s murderer. While this premise never sways from boilerplate predictability, O’Debra’s knack for comedic writing and timing keeps audiences entertained. Littering the script with period slang like kitten, angel, and doll, O’Debra also pushes the envelope with offbeat analogies and puns. When the story’s hero, Detective McKittrick, meets his client Fanny LaRue for the first time, he tells her “You have the face of an angel. Or an exotic prostitute.” Later on, after McKittrick comes up short from a dead-end tip, he laments that the informer “was about as useful as a fishnet condom.” With each character, she makes full use of the sharp, fearless writing, resulting in a candid, eye-catching performance.

The entire production is set up to be a radio recording, and O’Debra does nothing to hide this. She reads the script from a music stand in front of her, but not because she needs it; the stand helps set the ambience of a 1940s radio studio, and validates O’Debra’s radio star status. She keeps her focus on the script instead of the audience, and captivates the entire house from the first line. This sheer involvement in her own narrative makes her a true radio star and master storyteller, who knows both comedy and acting, and performs it all on her terms and in her words.

This is not a live tape recording or otherwise listless staged reading of a script, but a vivid reenactment of a thrilling detective story brought to life through a classic, pre-television form of entertainment that many modern audiences have never had the privilege of witnessing. There is no awkward hesitation when turning a page or switching characters, and she does a great job of projecting past the music stand, even when talking out of the side of her mouth as Lucifer, an oozing, Igor-esque manservant, or lowering her voice to a suspicious whisper as McKittrick tries to put all his clues together. A plugged nose gives away a prudish, cautious secretary character, for example, and whenever anyone smokes they receive a full-body miming of the action, including a bent inward elbow, puckered lips, and an extension of the index and forefinger.

In addition to O’Debra’s stunning array of offbeat characters, physical idiosyncracies, and corresponding voices, there’s also a Foley artist, J. Lincoln Hallowell, Jr. Among his many prop-based sound effects are a wooden box to simulate an opening or closing door, scrap cardstock which he rips every time a character strikes a match to light a cigarette (they only smoke Iron Lung, the radio show’s corporate sponsor), and has a pair of tap shoes which he clicks in heel-toe syncopation as our hero walks his beat or heads home, or provides a lighter tread as LaRue enters and leaves McKittrick’s office. Also adding to the noir affect is an original score by Andrew Mauriello, a perfect final appeal to our auditory senses. A blearing, smoky saxophone helps set up a scene on a rain-soaked street, for example, or a soft brush against cymbals create a subtle fadeout as McKittrick calls it a night and heads home. With its innovative concept and visual, descriptive script, Radio Star is a goofy take on the classic detective tale, brimming with vulgar tongue-in-cheek humor and colorful characters.

Radio Star (one hour; no intermission)
The Red Room (85 East Fourth Street)
Tickets( or 212-868-4444): $15; Students and Seniors $12
Performances (through 2/20): 2/13 @ 8pm; 2/18-2/20 @ 8pm

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

This Fable is Intended for You: A Work-Energy Principle

The World Financial Center Winter Garden has been invaded with volunteers interconnected by handmade rope from secondhand fabric. This Fable is Intended for You: A Work-Energy Principle, a conceptual movement piece by the mixed-media artist MK Guth, strives to depict the relationship between exertion and productivity in New York City. Not unlike hard work itself, the intention has been lost in the execution, leaving little representation of the original effort or idea.

Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis

For most of this past fall, MK Guth could be seen with her assistant through the display window of a vacant flower shop in the Financial District accepting used clothing from nearby residents and commuters, and unraveling the fabric to store as threads later to be braided into rope. This was the first phase of a three-piece modern art exhibit, This Fable is Intended for You: A Work-Energy Principle. Since the fall, the braided rope has been transported into the mezzanine level of the World Financial Center Winter Garden, counting as phase two of the art exhibit. Here, visitors can see the ropes on display in various forms and settings, as well as watch a five-minute “making of” video at the entrance to the exhibit.

For the final phase of the exhibit, Guth has choreographed a conceptual movement performed by 24 volunteers wearing backpacks that hold sixty-six feet of rope each, allowing them to expand and contract within the space, and each other. The performance is done in real time, with slow, methodical movement cued by monotone trumpet blasts by musician Gus Baum from atop the Garden’s marble staircase. Guth designed the concept around the architecture of the Winter Garden, a large, glass-walled atrium supported by marble pillars with a cylindrical, low staircase in the center.

Entertaining at first, the slowness of the pace soon settles in, and the lagging, apathetic volunteers never change their demeanor. The highlight here is more the concept and less the movement, as Guth’s recreation of the Garden’s geometric shapes works well and has interesting affects. At one point the volunteers stand in a semicircle curve along the perimeter of the lower staircase before expanding in opposite directions to close the gap and form an entire circle. From there they move onto the giant palm trees in the center of the foyer; they lay their ropes down in straight lines to create a grid between each tree.

For the most part, however, these movements shift very slowly and do not blend into each other. It looks more like a live-action stop-motion piece than a modern art conceptual movement. While doing a good job of imitating the space’s silence and elegance, it does little to translate the long hours spent to create the rope or design the piece. For a fast-paced city that never sleeps, the metaphor created in This Fable Is Intended For You: A Work Energy Principle to reflect its cycle of productivity just doesn’t work hard enough.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Little Gem

Buried family secrets and revelations bubble to the surface in this inter generational family drama.

Reviewed by Ilana Novick

Little Gem is the story of three generations of women in the Neville family in Dublin, Ireland, each at a different turning point in their lives—Amber, a suddenly pregnant 19-year-old; Amber’s mother, Lorraine, who is trying to cope with being left by her husband (eight years ago); and Amber’s grandmother, Kay, whose husband is slowly dying. Though they occupy the same set—a living room that doubles as a things like nightclubs, pubs, and cemeteries—there is no dialogue. Instead, a spotlight illuminates each woman and her chair, allowing quick snaps between the 18 intertwined monologues of the show. But Little Gem is far more just a series of speeches, and the actresses still have plenty of chemistry, with each scene domino-effecting the next. Reactions, not interactions, are what provide the stakes, suspense, and our emotional investment.

These actresses are great storytellers, too: oh, to have been a fly on the wall at the holiday party where Lorraine (Hilda Fay) attempts to keep herself together after a very public battle with a customer. Fay is touching and hilarious, and she carries a lot of history in her body, from those tense shoulders to her wide eyes, which show the strength to blink back tears or the glimmer of hope as her fortunes turn.
As Amber, Sarah Greene provides substance to the tan surface, displaying both the bravado and fear of a girl suddenly swamped with responsibility. Though Amber tries to simply coast through her days as a receptionist (in order to fund her vodka, cocaine, and deadbeat boyfriend habits), and gossips frivolously, Greene reveals the fear and the longing underneath the posturing.

However, Anita Reeves, who plays Kay, turns out to be the most heartbreaking and hilarious, speaking with stark clarity about the uncomfortable itch she’s had since her husband’s stroke and subsequent lack of physical attention. Seeing her reenactment of shopping for her first vibrator is embarrassing (to her), but given Reeves’s strength, also strangely liberating. Meanwhile, her dedication to small moments, like hugging the bedsheets on her first night after her husband’s funeral, is simply heart-wrenching.

Little Gem’s greatest strength is in the way that the lives of these three individual women seem universal for all women. Don’t all families, women in particular, engage in a kind of reverse backstabbing ? Being much more loving towards women may not be able to communicate with one another, but in working out how to cope with life in the aftermath of death, birth, and new romance, these women reveal plenty about themselves and nature of female relationships to the audience.

Little Gem (70 minutes, no intermission)
Flea Theater