Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Exit the King (Barrymore Theatre)

By Dan
Tony-worthy performance by Geoffrey Rush • unforgettable final scene • accessible absurdist theatre • makes you think • go with someone so you can discuss it afterwards

Lauren Ambrose and Geoffrey Rush in Exit the King.

BOTTOM LINE: In a Broadway season with so much to choose from, this is one show that will stay with you for a long, long time.

While Eugene Ionesco is an incredibly important playwright, his Absurdist plays (The Chairs, The Bald Soprano, Rhinoceros) are not what one might think of as typical Broadway fare. Unfortunately, most of the plays (new or revivals) produced on Broadway tend to be similarly realistic in style, that is, “real” things happening to “real” characters. So for this reason alone, I was excited to see the new production of Exit the King, and intrigued to see how it played in the 1000+ seat Barrymore Theatre. While this was not as awe-inspiring as the version of Ionesco’s The Chairs that played in London and on Broadway in 1998, it was still a great production. It was extremely well-directed by Neil Armfield, who provides it with a few moments of true theatre magic.

I imagine that for some, Ionesco is one of those playwrights who is more of a vegetable than a dessert, you feel like you really should see an Ionesco play because you feel like its good for you, but you’d kind of rather go see Hair instead. So for those who want to want to see Exit the King, fear not, this production is a lot of fun, and you’ll laugh a lot. If you’re worried that you won’t get the play, I don’t think that will be a problem at all. The premise is fairly simple: King Berenger (Geoffrey Rush) rules a kingdom, and his kingdom is almost ruined, and the King is supposed to die fairly soon. But he doesn’t want to die. Unfortunately, he has to by the end of the play.

Of course, this simple premise contains within it many layers on which one can interpret the play. My friend turned to me during intermission and said “you know, I think this is a lot about perception," and I think he’s right. As much as the King is a king, he is also an “everyman” (and indeed, “Berenger” is an everyman character in several other Ionesco plays). We all must deal with questions of our own mortality and to a certain extent, we are all “kings”, in that we live at the center of our own lives (kingdoms), and control (or at least try to control) everything that happens in them. The King is each of us. But as this production hints at, the King can also be the government, or the nation, or President Bush, or any of a multitude of bankrupt (yet bailed-out) corporations. And this is what makes this play so enjoyable. You can watch and interpret it on so many levels, from physical humor to philosophical discussion.

Each member of the cast is great and they are all very different. These roles could so easily become one-note and cartoonish, yet the entire cast works hard to find the humanity in these characters, without sacrificing any opportunity to make the audience laugh. I always love Andrea Martin (last seen on Broadway in Young Frankenstein)...she was hilarious as the maid Juliette. Lauren Ambrose (best known for playing Claire on Six Feet Under) does a great job with the role of Queen Marie, the young queen who doesn’t want King Berenger to die. But it was the two “stars," Susan Sarandon and Geoffrey Rush, who gave what I thought were the two most memorable performances.

I’ll admit, for a large portion of the play, I wasn’t quite sure what Susan Sarandon (as the King’s first wife, Queen Marquerite) was doing because she seemed oddly out of place and too restrained for the hilarity and chaos that was happening all around her. I wanted her to be bitchier, more of a domineering matriarch than a voice of reason. Of course, her calm presence is the whole point, and this eventually becomes clear later in the play. Sarandon’s final monologue is stunning, and while I don’t want to describe it, I would tell anyone to see Exit the King simply to see this final scene. I have no doubt it will be one of my top theatrical moments of the year, and will remain in my head for a long time.

And Geoffrey Rush gives what is no doubt one of the best performances of the year. He is a lock for a Tony nomination, and may very well win the award in June. His King Berenger is hilarious and sad at the same time; tremendously physical (just watch what he does with his scepter!) while simultaneously reminding us that he is becoming more and more decrepit with every minute. Rush makes it clear that the King is clearly the energetic and emotional center of Ionesco’s play, as well he should be. For what it is worth, Rush and director Neil Armfield co-translated Ionesco’s text; I’d have to compare this to other translations, but I suspect that their version does a lot to make this Exit the King accessible to modern Broadway audiences.

The design aspects of the production are all great. The set and costumes are blatantly theatrical with large tapestries supported by clearly visible wires, and huge robes that are thrown all over the stage. And the lighting and sound work subtly, providing a feeling that the King’s death is inevitable. That is, except when they are most definitely NOT subtle...two memorable moments include a frantic chase scene lit with a strobe light and the King’s “procession” accompanied by a marching band.

Are there any downsides to this production? There were a few times the play seemed to drag (although maybe I was just tired) but hang in there because it is worth it. And the theatre was uncomfortably warm the night I went...I’m hoping that was just due to the change of seasons, but be prepared and dress accordingly. But while people go to theatre for different reasons, I think any even semi-serious theatergoer MUST see Exit the King. If you want a play that makes you think, see Exit the King. If you want a play that makes you laugh, see Exit the King. And if you want a play that makes you marvel at the unique power of the theatre, then see Exit the King.

(Exit the King plays at the Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St, through June 14th. The general performance schedule is Tue at 7 PM, Wed through Sat at 8 PM, and matinees on Wed and Sat at 2 PM, and Sun at 3 PM. Running time is approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. Tickets are $66.50- $116.50, and $26.50 student rush tickets are available at the box office the day of the performance. Visit telecharge.com to buy tickets and exitthekingonbroadway.com for more information.)

Monday, March 30, 2009

Avenue Q (Golden Theatre)

By Molly and Dan

Stephanie D'Abruzzo and John Tartaglia from the original cast of Avenue Q. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Molly says:
Avenue Q is a hysterically witty original musical that has been playing on Broadway since 2003. It is the story of young people finding their way through life and love in New York City, told with puppets in a sort of sarcastic, "adult" Sesame Street-like interpretation. With a genuinely catchy score, fun characters and an insane sense of humor, it's easy to see why Avenue Q is still a hot ticket on Broadway. I saw the show when it first opened 6 years ago with the original cast and had a fantastic time. At that time, I was very familiar with the soundtrack (as in, I couldn't stop listening to it because it was so damn entertaining) and it didn't hinder my experience (contrary to Dan's, as you can read below). I recall at one point laughing so hard I was crying to such an extent that I couldn't even see what was happening on stage. I haven't seen the show since and I suppose a lot could have happened in the 6 years since Avenue Q opened, but I truly feel that at this show's core is a whole lot of heart and a brilliant adventure in storytelling.

Dan says:
I saw Avenue Q on Broadway shortly before it won the Tony Award for Best Musical (beating out Wicked in an upset). The race that year was extremely heated...Avenue Q mounted an aggressive campaign, urging Tony voters to “vote with their heart," implying that most of them liked Avenue Q the best but might vote for something else (eh hem, Wicked) for business reasons. All of this was happening when I saw the show, and coupled with the fact that my family had seen the show without me (how dare they!) several months before, made seeing it seem more like a duty than a pleasure. In other words, the show had been built up so much by that point, beginning from the initial off-Broadway run at the Vineyard Theatre, that I don’t know that it could ever have lived up to the hype.

Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy the show because I did. But I saw it alone, and Avenue Q is definitely a show to see with other people. I also knew a lot about the show going in, including (much to my dismay) some of the key jokes. Unfortunately, many of these jokes are in the songs, and not just in the song lyrics, but in the song titles. I had tried not to listen to the music before seeing the show, but it is hard to escape reading the titles of songs- they're often listed in articles about the show, and of course they're in the program. I’m sure that others won’t mind this the way I did, but if you haven’t seen it yet and are thinking about it, I’d urge you to try hard not to read too much about the show.

Of course, Avenue Q has a lot more going for it than (often off-color) humor; the book is quite smart, and refreshingly “un-PC." At the same time, as “radical” as some thought the content was at the time, the show is constructed in the manner of a traditional musical comedy, making it easy to understand why it has had such a long run on Broadway. I’m actually listening to the recording again as I write this, and Avenue Q has a great score–one that is immediately accessible with the first encounter, but still enjoyable after repeated listenings. I think it would appeal to anyone who has ever been young and poor and unsure of what to do with their life...which is probably anyone over 18. (As far as taking kids, I personally think it would be fine for anyone in high school, but parents should be warned there is some mature content, including language and sexual scenes). However, one of the best things about Avenue Q was the original cast, especially Ann Harada and John Tartaglia. Five years later, I’m not sure how the show is holding up, shows sometimes have a tendency to degrade over time and I haven’t heard much from people who have seen the show recently. But I have thought often about returning, probably trying the lottery for $21.25 front-row tickets. If I do, I’ll be sure to post an update.

(Avenue Q plays at the Golden Theater, 252 West 45th Street. Performances are Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm and 7pm. Tickets are $66.50-$121.50. 12 rush tickets at $21.25 are raffled off before each performance...for more info click here. Visit telecharge.com for tickets and check out avenueq.com for more show info including US tour dates.)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Belles (Lion Theatre)

By Scott
well acted • well directed • great set • something was missing

Kelly Strandemo, Christina Shipp, Kristi McCarson, Laura Faith in Belles. Photo by Christian DeAngelis.

BOTTOM LINE: So close and yet so far.

There is a lot to like about Belles, a play about six sisters desperately trying to connect with one another despite the distances between them, both physical and emotional. The play's strongest asset is the six actresses playing the sisters, each perfectly cast and able to effortlessly convey both the archetype she represents (successful business woman who is emotionally shut off, the flaky free-spirit who changes her name to Dust, the repressed Preacher's wife, etc.) as well as the conflict she believes to be uniquely her own. Director Marisa Voila weaves the story in and around a cozy, well appointed set that looks like your average American home. She creatively and effectively has the sisters alternating rooms until everyone has played at least one scene in every room, so that the space becomes both individual and universal, symbolic of the thread that connects each of these women. The scenes are well paced and fluid, the cast, as mentioned, adeptly navigates its way through the scenes mining the maximum emotional (when necessary) and comedic (when necessary) value while remaining grounded and believable. The costumes and lighting and all the other technical elements of the play are similarly top notch.

My only criticism is that because the entire play is a series of phone calls (45 to be exact), it means that there was never a real face-to-face connection between any of the characters. As the play unfolded and the histories and frustrations and resentments were revealed and confronted, my desire for at least two people to be in the same room at the same time and actually deal with each other live and without the protection of distance continued to grow. Because that desire was never satisfied, I left feeling like this play had unfinished business, that I wanted more. Which, perhaps is not a bad thing. And I certainly don’t mean to suggest that the creators of this production didn’t fulfill their obligation to the play, its just that for me, one of the thrills of live theatre is the opportunity to watch human beings deal with one another face to face and in real time, perhaps in ways we never would or even could in real life. As the various pairs of women stood on stage talking into their phones, though within mere inches of each other, they were figuratively miles apart. And consequently, so was I.

(Belles plays through April 12 at the Lion Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street. Performances are Mondays at 7pm, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $21.25 and are available at ticketcentral.com or by phone at 212-279-4200. For more show info visit heiressproductions.org.)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

ZOMBIE has been extended

ZOMBIE, the creepy one-man show adapted from a Joyce Carol Oates novella, has been extended through April 26th. From last year's NY Fringe Festival, ZOMBIE has received critical acclaim for its off-Broadway production at Theatre Row. Check it out while you can, and read Scott's review of ZOMBIE here.

reasons to be pretty (Lyceum Theatre)

By Molly
a funny drama • young and hip • lots of f-bombs • stellar performances • pushes the envelope in a good way

Thomas Sadoski and Marin Ireland in reasons to be pretty.

BOTTOM LINE: Bitingly funny and self-aware. Perfect entertainment, especially for members of Gens X and Y.

Neil LaBute is one of the greatest American playwrights out there today. He is prolific, hip and insightful. He generally writes about people in their 20s and 30s and his characters are always flawed yet relatable archetypes. Although LaBute has recognizable work from stage and screen (he penned The Shape of Things, Fat Pig and Nurse Betty, to name a few) this marks his Broadway debut. Reasons is a good choice for Broadway because the story isn't as alienating as some of his other work. There are still squeamy moments and brutal insults characteristic of any LaBute play, but unlike some of his other work, most of the characters in reasons are truly likable. Sure, they are flawed, but at their core they are sympathetic. This is especially true of the protagonist, Greg.

LaBute's writing style is sharp and aggressive. His characters sling bad words and insults at one another, never afraid to raise their voice or fight back in self-defense. When the scene isn't heated, their witty banter is reminiscent of an especially perceptive Friends episode. LaBute's themes are often about exposing the bullshit that underlies relationships, usually involving Gen-Xers living typical American lives. The superficiality of dating is a common theme as well. LaBute's work is captivating, in part, because his characters are so evocative of people you know and his stories are so authentically relatable.

Reasons is really a wonderful script performed to perfection by the cast of four. Greg (Thomas Sadoski) works the night shift with his friend Kent (Steven Pasquale), your standard misogynistic douchebag who is charming enough to get whatever he wants. When a new, hot employee joins the staff, Greg is caught saying something degrading about how his girlfriend Steph (Marin Ireland) looks in comparison. Kent's wife Carly (Piper Perabo) overhears the comment and quickly tells Steph, as any good girlfriend would. Steph is obviously pissed and hurt and the inevitable ugly breakup of Greg and Steph results. Everyone is a little bit in the wrong: Greg shouldn't have said anything in the first place, Kent shouldn't have brought it up and encouraged Greg to talk about it, Steph shouldn't have overreacted and Carly probably shouldn't have told Steph anyway. Add to this drama the complications that arise as Kent makes bad, deceitful decisions in his own life and you get a precarious scenario between four friends.

Director Terry Kinney does a great job keeping the scenes moving and the energy high; the tension is always lingering in the air. The stage is set with a generic room of sorts, including a back wall with one window and one door and tile floor below. In between scenes, furniture and set pieces whiz on to the stage and then off again, transforming the space into Greg's house, the warehouse where they work, the mall food court and a baseball field. Reasons moves right along, never feeling tiresome or boring. And with a fun score accompanying the scene changes like a really good movie soundtrack does, Reasons adopts a fresh, movie-like quality to the production. For all of the ways that this play brilliantly utilizes its theatrical resources, it really does feel like a movie in many ways.

It's beyond refreshing to see unique stories told on stage, especially about young adults in the present. That is a genre seldom explored by work that makes it all the way to Broadway, and that could be a direct correlation between the general Broadway audience and the material. Those of you who fit into the age group that reasons delves into seriously need to see this show–it's for you, and it's freaking awesome that it gets to have a Broadway production. And even if you're not in your 20s or 30s, you can relate, you've been there, and you should definitely check out LaBute's newest play.

(reasons to be pretty plays at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street. Performances are Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $31.50 - $111.50. Call 212.239.6200 or visit telecharge.com. Check broadwaybox.com for discount codes. Visit doesthisplaymakemelookfat.com for more show info.)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Gaugleprixtown (Kirk Theatre)

By Dan
inspired by true events • a sometimes muddled mixture of realism, make-believe, and surrealism • short! (only an hour) • does not pander to the audience • subtle and small

Photo by Aaron Epstein.

BOTTOM LINE: Potentially confusing, but if you’re interested in subtle new work it is worth checking out.

If you go into Gaugleprixtown knowing nothing about the show, you might find it extremely confusing. I heard several men remark to each other afterward “I didn’t understand that at all.” And my partner, seeing the ad for the show in the lobby afterward, said “oh, that explains a lot. I wish I had seen that earlier.”

So while I’m not sure understanding a show should depend on reading press about it, here is the text of the ad. "A True Story. London, 1993. Two 11-year-old boys abduct, torture, and murder a three-year-old, abandoning the body along railroad tracks. The crime becomes instantly legendary. Eight years later, the boys, then men, are released into society, with new identities and a court order never to contact one another again. Inspires an Award Winning Drama. Massachusetts, 2009. Drifting in a rowboat, their chilling past rising to the surface, “Richard” and “Adrian” meet for the first time in 15 years."

Given this, how was the show? Gaugleprixtown is somewhat of a challenge to audiences, which is both good and bad. I liked that I was not hit over the head by the script–even knowing the basic premise of the play, there was a lot that was still vague. Part of this is because Andrew Muir, the playwright, and David F. Chapman, the director, create a somewhat dream-like world in which you are never quite sure what is real and what is make-believe. The characters are both men, but men defined by their childhoods–are they reliving (or even reenacting) their youth, or are they speaking to each other as adults? The two men spend a lot of time telling stories and playing games, and it isn’t always quite clear that this is what they are doing. But sometimes, their playing make-believe seems to become real, as with the appearance of Lucy, the girl they apparently murdered when they were children.

Overall, I think there is a lot of potential here, but I think the script and direction could still be clearer. It seems that Muir and Chapman did not want to make the play too didactic–they did not want to create a simple, realistic play about what happens when the two men meet each other again. They are going for subtlety, which I love. But the material is so subtle it sometimes gets confusing. For example, the play does not show the men greeting each other for the first time after so many years; the play begins with them together in a boat. Unless you have read something about Gaugleprixtown beforehand, you have no idea these men have not seen each other in years, or that they have been forbidden from meeting, or that their identities have been changed, or that they killed a girl when they were kids. It is all hinted at in the script, but it is still hard to be sure who these characters are.

However, while Gaugleprixtown is not a purely realistic drama, it is also not purely surrealistic or absurdist, and I think this uneasy mix of styles is what makes the play suffer. Maybe Muir and Chapman are trying to do too much here–the characters are already complex, and to tell their story through a mix of styles, one in which it is often unclear what is happening, hurts the play. If they had gone even more surrealistic, and let the audience know early on that they were not watching a strictly realistic play (especially since nowadays, that is what theatre audience are used to), I think Gaugleprixtown would be less confusing, but no less interesting.

Gaugleprixtown has some great design elements, most notably the set and lighting. The entire play takes place in a small boat, and the designers manage to create a boat that moves up and down in the water amidst greenery and trees, with light rippling on the water. The sound design also does a lot to evoke the dream-like quality of the piece. The design contributes a lot to this play, and given the small size of the stage and the equally small size of the budget, I think the designers (Martin Andrew–scenic, Peter Hoerburger–lighting, and Sharath Patel–sound) are especially to be commended.

The actors are more uneven. The two men have a difficult job–how does one play a grown man who committed murder when he was a boy? How far below the surface is one’s memory of this crime? How much is one affected by it? Muir has written characters who seem to have been affected differently, but I think Tony Roach as Adrian does a much better job with the complexity of his character. I think part of the reason this play is so potentially confusing is that Richard, as played by Kurt Uy, just does not seem to be someone who has ever committed a gruesome murder, or even someone who has shoplifted. Finally, Devon Berkshire plays Lucy, the girl who was murdered. When she appears, the play definitely shifts in tone, and while I enjoyed her performance (her reenactment of the crime is quite chilling), Berkshire seems to be in a different play that the two men.

All in all, I would recommend this play to audiences who are looking for challenging theatre, those who like subtlety, and those who are tired of being pandered to by theatre that is “easy.” This is not a piece for those looking for a fun night out, or for those who need to understand everything they see the moment they see it. But if you’re willing to risk a little confusion, and enjoy seeing new work, Gaugleprixtown is worth checking out. But I’d suggest reading the program notes before it begins.

(Gaugleprixtown plays at the Kirk Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St., through April 4th. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. Tickets are $18, available at 212-279-4200 or online at ticketcentral.com. For more information visit stu42.com.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Rods and Cables (3LD)

By Kitty

BOTTOM LINE: If you're looking for wholesome family fun, the Rods are against you, but if sexy sardonicism is more your speed, the Cables are more than able.

One could liken the experience of Rods and Cables to that of a sugar rush. As soon as I entered the theater, I felt I had been sipping liters of Coca Cola through several dozen Pixie Stix straws. The theater evokes memories of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory with a Little Man with a Big Costume (conveniently both character name and concise description) acting as a Willy Wonka-esque host, escorting guests to their seats and offering them beverages from an ice-filled tub placed centerstage. As he winks and smirks his way through the audience, another character, That Woman, floats about the theater is a four-tiered gown made entirely of freshly baked doughnuts. A woman's flat, toneless voice emanates from the speakers, reminding the audience, "You don't eat her, you eat the doughnuts she offers on her dress." All this before the scripted play has even begun!

Rods and Cables is a four character performance piece (although one may argue the disconnected "speaker" voice, which serves as narrator throughout the play's duration, is indeed a fifth) that explores the complexities of love and relationships through a kaliedoscopic lens. The cast is supported by an eclectic collection of musical selections, creative lighting and effects, and a short film projected on four flat screen TVs strung around the walls of this theater-in-the-round. The film is a lovely addition to the play as it offers a realistic depiction of a modern love triangle. This supplement provides an illuminating contrast to the absurd threesome around which the story is based.

The production establishes the relationships between the characters quickly and cleanly. The Sexy Clown and That Woman share a deeply sexual relationship, but find themselves in the shallow end of intimacy. At first, it appears both are content with such an arrangement, but with the arrival of a shiny, new plaything, Sultry Flight Attendant, That Woman realizes she requires more emotionally from The Sexy Clown. That Woman's persistent pulling of The Sexy Clown, however, reveals a frustrating indifference on the part of The Sexy Clown and the meat of the play discusses this issue's reconciliation. During one particularly poignant monologue, That Woman laments, "Man tries to make things permanent all the time...Nothing seems to ever stick around."

The world that writer and director Allison M Keating creates in Rods and Cables can be described as Candyland on crack. It is colorful, fun, humorous and silly, but just like the consequence of eating too many sweets, soon cavities appear and rot away the glossy enamel. This relationship's polished veneer becomes vunerable to suspicion, deceit and decay. It is this continual balancing act, fleshed out nicely by the ensemble cast, that gives this production its immense appeal. Rods and Cables reminds the audience that nothing is just good or bad, loving or hateful, sweet or bitter, simple or difficult in life in general, but in love especially. As much as an overindulgence of sugar could potentially bring about the onset of diabetes, as human beings, we are willing to risk it for that syrupy sweet rush.

(Rods and Cables runs through April 11th, at the 3LD Art and Technology Center, 80 Greenwich Street. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm. Tickets are $25-$30, $15 for students, available at 212-352-3101 or 3LDNYC.org.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

1984 (59E59)

By Ben
technically spectacular • very cool staging • small, engaging theater • sit in the second row if you have a bag • bright lights and loud sounds, but not excessive

BOTTOM LINE: A visually and technically engaging adaptation of George Orwell’s classic novel with some very cool scenes.

Big Brother is watching you. Winston Smith is rebelling. “Down with Big Brother”
is a dangerous thought and an even more dangerous thing to say. In this world, newspeak has replaced our old vocabulary of expressive words and is now affecting our society's behavior. Winston has caught on. That’s the way they want it. Dare he choose to act out of order or think for himself? Remember, Big Brother is watching you.

So then, who is Big Brother? The Godlight Theater Company presents 1984, Orwell’s classic story, on stage in an intimate, chilling atmosphere. The audience surrounds the stage only 2 rows deep as we observe Winston’s struggle to live in the new world. News reports come in and go away, colleagues come and go and our experience is almost that of being Big Brother ourselves, seeing it all with no escape for anyone.

The 80-minute play is intense and practically in your face. The lights and sounds are loud and bright, but done with precision without being excessive. The adapted story was intriguing and the actors generally do create engaging scenes. There are many creative risks on stage through director Joe Tantalo's clever staging. More often than not it pays off. A few things had me scratching my head afterwards, but overall there were many neat moments.

I did catch this production in previews, so that could be why some scenes didn’t grab me as much as I would liked them to. It may change when the show officially opens next week. The adapted story, overall, was presented well. Some scenes and theatrics were lost on me, but as I write this the day after seeing the show, many of the images still stick in my head as I process what I saw.

If you are a fan of the story then you should definitely go see this classic novel on stage. The Godlight Theater Company does some awesome staging and the light show alone is worth the price of admission. If you think the concept is interesting, you’ll probably dig it.

(1984 plays at 59E59 Theatres, 59 East 59th Street, through April 19th. Performance times are Tuesday at 7:30pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8:30pm, Saturday at 2:30 pm and Sunday at 3:30 pm. Tickets are $25, available at 212-279-4200 or online at ticketcentral.com. For more information visit 59E59.org.)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Wicked (Gershwin Theatre)

By Molly and Dan

is an insanely popular show. It has been playing on Broadway since it opened in 2003, is playing a long engagement in San Francisco, is touring the U.S. and also plays regularly in other countries. People freaking love this show. So we figured it was time to write something about it.

This musical is full of glitz and is, in many ways, a big Broadway spectacular; it is also a charming story with a wonderfully catchy score. Wicked is satisfying in a sparkly way, and also in a storytelling way. And it spans demographics. You don't really need to have a great knowledge of The Wizard of Oz, or really a great grasp of the English language to enjoy the experience. I have to imagine this crossing of international borders is one of the reasons Wicked remains such a must-see. Tickets are still hard to come by and the front-row ticket lottery always draws a massive crowd. I wish I had a more critical opinion of this show since it's such a cheesy, obvious pick. But I have a soft spot in my heart for musical theatre that's done well, especially when it connects with the audience in such a magnetic way. I'd recommend Wicked for people who just generally like musical theatre and are looking for a quintessential "Broadway" experience. It's also appropriate for the whole family so you can bring your kids as well as your parents.

Dan agrees. Here's what he has to say about Wicked:
I have seen Wicked twice–the first time was right before it opened in 2003, and the second was several years later when my friend had returned to play Elphaba. I enjoyed it both times, and would happily see it again. Is it the best musical ever? No. Would I recommend it above all other Broadway shows? Maybe not (it would depend on the person), but if you're looking for a "big Broadway musical" I would recommend this over Billy Elliot, Shrek, The Phantom of the Opera, Mamma Mia or The Little Mermaid (I haven't seen Mary Poppins yet). Why Wicked? I could argue that it is a somewhat subversive tale of two female friends, told with all the glitz and glamour of Broadway. Or that it is more truthful than other musicals about the pain of being different (and green), and the intolerance of society- compare it to Shrek, or Avenue Q (the show that beat Wicked for the Best Musical Tony award), or even Billy Elliot. I could argue that Wicked will be enjoyable to anyone who has seen The Wizard of Oz. Or that the musical Wicked is an incredibly savvy adaptation of Gregory Maguire's novel, because the musical takes basic characters and plot points from the novel, but doesn't get bogged down in slavish adaptation. (And while I think the novel is better, both are worth experiencing–and they're different enough that one won't lessen your enjoyment of the other.) I could also add that Wicked has not one, but two diva performances–and let's be real, Broadway musical audiences love their divas. But ultimately, I think the popularity of Wicked can be explained by the last minute or so of the first act. It is an incredibly successful merging of dramatic spectacle and character development- and is one of the few truly unforgettable moments I have seen in a Broadway musical.

(Wicked plays at the Gershwin Theatre, 222 West 51st Street. Performances are Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $61.25 - $121.25 available at ticketmaster.com. Get front row tickets for $26.50 at the lottery, 2 hours before showtime at the box office. For more show info, visit wickedthemusical.com.)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Unseen (Cherry Lane Theatre)

By Molly
a great script by distinguished playwright Craig Wright • dark and sort of funny but not really a comedy • intense • graphic and very violent
Stan Denman and Steven Pounders in The Unseen.

BOTTOM LINE: An interesting story performed quite well. For those who enjoy a dark tale about two very human guys.

Craig Wright is best known for his work as an Emmy-winning writer of tv dramas like "Six Feet Under" and "Brothers and Sisters," although he is also a notable playwright. Wright is a pro at creating realistic characters in extreme circumstances; they're not always likable, but they're always believable. These people are flawed because they are human. In Wright's The Unseen, now playing off-Broadway after runs in Dallas and at the Humana Festival in Louisville, he introduces the audience to two men trapped in a nondescript prison for unclear reasons.

Wallace and Valdez are jail neighbors with only one cell in between. They talk to each other all day for the company and also to keep their minds sharp. They don't know why they are imprisoned and no one will give them any information, although they've been in jail for 9 years. Still, they are hopeful they will get out soon. The play never reveals where they are, although their guard, Smash, appears to be American. So Wallace and Valdez spend their days in seclusion, save for the communication with each other, and the occasional trip to the torture room where Smash beats the crap out of them for undisclosed reasons.

The Unseen is really a study of a person's resiliance under extreme conditions. With Wallace and Valdez we see incredible perserverance even when it doesn't seem they'll ever be rescued. With Smash, we see how his job as an abusive thug wears on his conscience. And since the play gives little detail about these men and little back-story about why they are imprisoned, all the audience really knows is how these three characters cope...how they adjust to their struggle when the situation becomes more dire.

With intensely intimate portrayals, Thomas Ward (Smash), Steven Pounders (Wallace) and Stan Denman (Valdez) shed light on these guys at a personal level. The fact that we don't have any preconceived knowledge about their characters provides a blank slate on which to observe their present situation. And Wright's script is delicately written. The dialogue is funny at times, but the severity of the reality is never forgotten. The Unseen provides an intense 90 intermissionless minutes.

If the subject matter intrigues you, check out The Unseen while you still can (it closes on Sunday, March 29th). It's a little unsatisfying to be completely unaware of the details though, and as a result the stakes don't seem quite as high...I must admit I wasn't as grabbed as I wanted to be by the intensity of the plight. But Wright is an incredible playwright, and these characters are written with a realistic and human touch. It's an interesting character study to see how they deal with their circumstances.

(The Unseen plays at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street off 7th Avenue, through March 29th. Show times are Tuesday through Sunday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $46 and are available at telecharge.com. For more show info visit unseentheplay.com.)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The New Hopeville Comics (The American Theatre of Actors)

By Le-Anne
very rock opera • several stand-out voices • comic book style • pretty darn funny • some F-bombs and adult relationships, I’d recommend a 16 and up crowd

Villains Sex, Drugs and Rockenroll capture a Hopeville citizen in The New Hopeville Comics. Photo by Jacquelyn Terhar.

BOTTOM LINE: An entertaining rock opera that is a laugh-out-loud good time and has an interesting message.

Hollywood has capitalized on the big box office pull of comic books and graphic novels with movies like “Watchmen,” “Fantastic Four” and “X-Men,” but now with productions like off-Broadway’s The Toxic Avenger and Broadway’s upcoming Spider-Man in the works it seems the great American musical is hopping on board. Riding the front of that train are Nate Weida and Sarah Donnell with their rock opera, The New Hopeville Comics. With an original story, a powerful score and a stellar cast, this is a must see.

Upon entering the theatre one is immediately transported smack dab in the pages of a comic book. A haze blankets the house and giant, chromatic letters spelling “Hopeville” snake their way across the stage. An overgrown, cartoon-like television set, brightly outlined door frames and floating street lamps dot the set. The essence of this comic is brought to life by set designers Steve Royal, Justin Ansley and Grace Baxter. Though Hopeville has a comic book flair, unlike the aforementioned shows it is not derived from an existing graphic novel. In fact, after visiting the show's website, it looks as if this musical has inspired an upcoming comic book.

The story is set in Hopeville, a Pleasantville type town where everything is perfect...it never even rains, thanks to the town’s resident hero Perfect Man (Chris Critelli) who chases away all things bad and unpleasant. Then, when Perfect’s heart is broken, he loses hope and thereby loses his strength, allowing the villains Sex (Terren Wooten Clarke), Rockenroll (John Bennett) and Drugs (Carl Conway Maguire) to kill him and easily overtake Hopeville. For the first time, Hopeville is left unprotected and it begins to rain. Lighting designer David A. Sexton manipulates beautiful diagonal streaks of light to create a comic book rain shower effect.

Weida’s music and lyrics are a driving force that propel this story with sounds gleaned from classical operas, traditional musical theatre, '60s and '70s rock, jazz, contemporary pop artists and even a little calypso. Like Pete Townshend and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Weida creates a diverse musical storytelling not only with lyrics, but with musical phrasing, rhythms and underscoring that could stand alone as a rock opera album. While Hopeville’s sound is very different from Tommy or, say, Jesus Christ Superstar (it’s almost a cross between the two), it’s epic story telling is similar in structure. It’s also similar in that some places the story gets a little muddy but is saved by musical themes that are repeated throughout to create coherency. But hey, if Townshend and Webber can do it, so can Weida. The music is spirited enough and the performances are passionate enough that the holes in the story just don’t matter.

The message in The New Hopeville Comics rings more true than perfect: life isn’t neatly tied in a bow but it does bravely go on. This production has a whole lotta laughter and a whole lotta talent. Though the citizens of Hopeville may be without a hero, they will be with hope again and, damn it, there will be music.

(The New Hopeville Comics plays in the Chernuchin Theatre at the American Theater of Actors, 314 West 54th St., between 8th and 9th Avenues. It runs through March 28th: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. The show is 2 hours with one 10 min intermission. Tickets are $25, $15 for students available at 212-352-3101 or at TheaterMania.com. For more info visit newhopevillecomics.com.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Love/Stories at The Flea is extended

Itamar Moses' Love/Stories (Or But You Will Get Used To It), the quirky off-off-Broadway play including five vignettes about dating, has been extended through April 25th.

Le-Anne enjoyed the production when she saw it in February...
BOTTOM LINE: intriguing stories that explore the everlasting conundrums of love and relationships in a theatrically creative way.

Read Le-Anne's full review here.

Love/Stories plays at The Flea, 41 White Street between Church and Broadway. Tickets are $20 and are available by calling 212.352.3101 or online at www.theflea.org.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Schooling Giacomo (New York Dramadies Company)

By Le-Anne
heartwarming story • flashbacks • drama with many laugh-out-loud moments • great cast • solid production

Kevin Trotta as Mr. Fanuchi and Hugh Scully as Jake Montalto in Schooling Giacomo. Photo by Rick Klein.

BOTTOM LINE: “What’re ya gonna do?” “Fugetaboutit!” and “Thank you for coming.”

In the summer of 1970, a young Bronx boy learns the lessons that will make him the man he is today. Playwright Richard Edwin Knipe, Jr., glides back and forth between the past and the present in his entertaining drama, Schooling Giacomo. With flashbacks, funny but true stereotypes, and a talented cast, this humorous and heartwarming tale is a show worth seeing.

When the play opens with a scene from the past, the lovable Mafioso Vukey Fanuchi, (Kevin Trotta), educates a young Jake (ably played by young actor Jordan Adelson) that Giacomo is really Italian for James not Jake. The young boy is taught what days are best to go to confession–Thursday night, after 6 o’clock so the Father has time to digest and never on Friday night because that is when Monsignor Riley is in the confessional, and never confess your sins to an Irish priest! Moments of sincere bigotry like this are confronted with a witty hand throughout the play. The play then fast-forwards to a grown-up Giacomo, skillfully portrayed by Hugh Scully, who is raising his sickly daughter Abbey (Alanna Heraghty) by himself. Then again, maybe those lessons learned almost forty years ago are helping Jake raise his daughter more than he knows. The play continues in this fashion, with one moment from one scene inspiring a memory or a leap in time to the next.

Trotta is genuine in his portrayal of a classic Italian stereotype. Anyone who has an older immigrant family member, for whom English is not there first language, Italian or otherwise, will identify with Trotta’s performance and Knipe’s use of malaprop as well as an old-world code of conduct for this character. Completing the stereotype of the quintessential, loudmouthed, know-it-all, “fugetaboutit,” Italian-American family in New York are Jake’s uncles Dominic, (Andrew Lionetti), Charlie (George Petkanus), and Joe (Rick Apicella).

Lionetti is Larry to Petkanus and Apicella’s Moe and Curly as this comic trio commands every scene they are in. Rolls of laughter flooded the house as Charlie and Joe argued over “shit rye bread” from competing neighborhood diners and a particular type of “napkin” being the catalyst for a neighbor’s adultery, while Uncle Dominic does his best to guard young Jake’s ears from such inappropriate language and subjects. In a climactic moment in the play, and Jake’s life, the three uncles come together with Mr. Fanuchi in a scene that is as gripping as it is gut-busting.

Jake’s lessons may begin with the death of his father and then witnessing his Irish/German-American Mother Irene (Robin Peck) deal with alcoholism and her abusive boyfriend Pete Murphy (Kevin Nagle); they even include a street-guide practicum from unlikely teachers and a message from the grave by way of The Beatles' last album ever recorded, but they end with a lesson from the greatest teacher of all: life. Schooling Giacomo will not only will keep you highly entertained but you may just a learn a thing or two about what is important in your own life along the way.

*Note: This show was reviewed on March 13. The role of Vukey Fanuchi was played by Kevin Trotta, Giacomo (Young Jake) by Jordan Adelson, Dominic by Andrew Lionetti and Irene by Robin Peck. The above roles are double cast. On alternating nights, they are played by Joe DeSpirito, Justin Adelson, Glenn John Arnowitz and Marian McCabe, respectively.

(Schooling Giacomo plays at the American Theatre of Actors, 314 W. 54th St, between 8th & 9th Avenues. The show runs 2 hours with one 10 minute intermission. Performances run through April 26th, Thursday through Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $35 and can be reserved by calling 888-220-6284, or by visiting www.schoolinggiacomo.com)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Blithe Spirit (Shubert Theatre)

By Dan
a perfect role for Angela Lansbury • very funny • grand set design • your parents will enjoy it • your kids will too

BOTTOM LINE: A dolid production of a classic Noël Coward play, and a great choice if you’re trying to please several different people

I must admit, I’ve never seen a production of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, and I haven’t read it in quite some time. It may be that this production pales against others (I’ve heard some complain, for example, that they dislike how this production turns a three act play into a two act one
–it “ruins the rhythm”, they say). So if you are a Coward connoisseur, I can’t promise you will love this production. Especially since for some Coward fans, this is one of his lesser works. But I think everyone else will enjoy this tremendously. There are a lot of great things about this Blithe Spirit, and while it isn’t perfect, I’d say that its strengths mainly lie in its appeal to a broad audience (it is on Broadway, after all), without pandering or dumbing down the play.

The play is not modernized, or set in a space ship, or anything “revolutionary”– it is a pretty traditional version of Coward’s British drawing-room comedy, in which Charles Condomime (Rupert Everett) is being haunted by his first wife Elvira (Christine Ebersole) after a séance held by the medium Madame Arcati (Angela Lansbury). Of course, Condomime’s current wife Ruth (Jayne Atkinson) is none too happy about this.

All in all, the cast is terrific, but for me, Angela Lansbury was a standout; whenever she was on stage, I was riveted, and found myself focusing mostly on her. Much celebration was made when she returned to Broadway a few seasons back in Deuce but unfortunately, most people didn’t like the play (although I did). For those who love Lansbury but were disappointed in Deuce, or missed that show altogether, go see Blithe Spirit; Madame Arcati is a great role for this legendary actress. To be sure, it seemed as if Lansbury went off on her lines a few times (she IS 83 years old), but she played it off very well. My guess is that most in the audience didn’t even notice.

Also terrific is Christine Ebersole–I had no idea carrying a vase of flowers could be so hilarious. Ebersole is perfectly ethereal, and knows how to work her costume to keep the audience laughing. As an added bonus, she sings the Noël Coward songs that are played during the scene transitions. Jayne Atkinson is also wonderful. She is an incredible actress, and does the dry British humor thing quite well. Rupert Everett is enjoyable, and a perfect fit for a fussy British husband. He is quite handsome, which makes him seem markedly younger than either of his wives. I didn’t mind this, but it certainly puts a slight twist on the roles. Finally, I MUST also mention Susan Louise O’Connor, who plays the maid Edith. From the very beginning, she had me in stitches. I didn’t realize until the intermission that I had seen O’Connor on stage once before, in a much smaller theatre. She was hilarious then too so it is exciting to see this talented and very funny actress making her Broadway debut.

The set is quite grand, and almost beautiful. There is a line in the play about how Ruth’s tastes are somewhat “artsy-craftsy”, and you can see this in the selection of the sofa (its dowdiness seems somewhat out of place but I’m guessing this was intentional). But the set nevertheless got an applause when the curtain went up. The lighting deftly changes based on the different times of day (morning, late night). And the costumes are also well done, especially Madame Ducati’s eccentric outfits and Ebersole’s “spirited” gown. However, I must also add that I really had trouble with the sound design, which made everyone sound like they had their microphones set at different volumes. Atkinson didn’t seem to be miced at all, and Deborah Rush (who plays Mrs. Bradman, a friend of the Condomimes) was extremely loud. This may have been part of the reason why I didn’t like Rush in this play at all–she was the one cast member who didn’t seem to belong on that stage.

I had a wonderful time at Blithe Spirit, and I think this is a great choice for many different audiences. As my friend and I were leaving the theatre, we heard a teenage boy exclaim on his cell phone that he thought the show was “hilarious." And I could tell the older women around us loved the show. My friend (who did NOT like Deuce) loved it as well- he predicts it will be very popular, even with those who don’t see all that much theatre. It’s so great to walk out of a show with a sincere smile on your face, and that is how I left this show.

(Blithe Spirit plays at the Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St. Opening Night is Sunday March 15th. The general performance schedule is Tuesday at 7 pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm with 2 pm matinees on Wednesday and Saturday and 3 pm matinee on Sunday. Running time is approximately 2 hours 40 minutes. Tickets are $36.50-$116.50, slightly cheaper for Wednesday matinees. Right now, 40% off discounts are available (check broadwaybox.com). There are also student rush tickets available at the box office for $26.50. For more show info visit blitheonbroadway.com.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Red Haired Thomas (Soho Think Tank)

By Molly
sort of a political allegory • sort of theatre of the absurd • intellectualized and insightful • well acted • poses interesting points worth discussing

BOTTOM LINE: Too many good points are raised in Red-Haired Thomas.

Soho Think Tank's new play Red-Haired Thomas, by Robert Lyons, resurrects Thomas Jefferson and gets his insight about the current state of American politics. Our kindhearted founding father is not pleased. This play also offers speculation on the notion of luck and circumstance; whether you're born into fortune in America or born into volatile conflict in the Middle East, we're all essentially after the same common desires. At the same time, it also ponders the principles surrounding the American Revolution in connection with worldly events of today; if the colonists were rebelling today would they be considered terrorists? Red-Haired Thomas offers a lot of food for thought.

These queries are presented among an otherwise simple story of family strife and growing up. Cliff (Peter Sprague) is a gambling addict enabled by his power-suit-wearing wife Marissa (Danielle Skraastad, at right). Their 12-year-old daughter Abby (Nicole Raphael) is beginning to distance herself from childish things and Cliff is reaching an existential crisis of what matters and what doesn't. Although that sounds linear and easy to follow, this is where we break from reality. Thomas Jefferson (Alan Benditt, at right) presides over this story as the not-so-imaginary, not-really-a-figment-of-anyone's-imagination ex-president slash ex-father of Cliff and his brother Ifthikar (Danny Beiruti), a Middle Eastern man working at Cliff's local bodega, in a sort of nature vs. nurture experiment.

The plot of Red-Haired Thomas underlies the message of the play, and it's really the timely words of wisdom regarding our current political state that serve as the takeaway, rather than the story itself. And that's for the best because this plot takes on a lot without much explanation. The absurdist presentation of the piece takes precedence, sucking time that could've been used to offer insightful dialogue (or at least to let Jefferson say more...Benditt plays a hilariously woeful ex-pres). I would've loved to hear Jefferson dissect new-millenium America further, rather than, say, the uninspired song and dance break intended to develop a character that didn't need further development. When this script hones in on a point and offers a unique perception it is right on the money.

Certainly, Red-Haired Thomas leaves its audience with much to think about. If you like political commentary and are interested in the historical ramifications of our past, this is definitely a piece worth checking out. Through Jefferson's disappointed eyes, it's clear that the world is, in many ways, missing the boat on issues of equality and happiness. Red-Haired Thomas is a compelling play that provides great conversation starters.

(Red-Haired Thomas plays at the Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster Street, through March 28th. Performance times are Thursday through Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 7pm. Run time is 80 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $18 and $12 for students and seniors. Tickets are available at smarttix.com or by calling 212.868.4444. For more show info visit sohothinktank.org.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Fool For Love (Living Theatre)

By Le-Anne
great design elements • see you some Shepard • some nice stage violence • not for the kiddies (language, violence, content)

BOTTOM LINE: It’s always a good idea to check out a Shepard play. Not quite as risky of a production as I was hoping for, but in all, a solid show.

Lots of anger is hurled about in The Bull’s production of Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love at the Living Theatre. This self-proclaimed “pulp revival,” directed by Katherine Krause, promises a “knock-down, drag ‘em out fight.” Shepard’s play, though touted as being raw and passionate, is also seen as one of his weaker works. It was first produced in 1983 during a time of social and political clash and opposition, as the United States was barely recovering from a five year long recession, although hope was on the brink. It is interesting then, that The Living Theatre chose to remount this play during a time in our country that is both eerily similar and yet couldn’t be more dissimilar to it’s state twenty-five years ago...a time when our country’s social and political climate is a walking contradiction, much like the characters May and Eddie in Fool For Love.

On-again-off-again lovers, May and Eddie have deep secrets and even deeper wounds and struggle with each other like a fat kid loves cake (thanks fiddy). The two, played by Katie Bender and Kevin Shaffer respectively, duke it out on stage in a game of who can yell more, be meaner, and slam the door the loudest. Incidentally, fight choreographer Dan Zisson lends his sharp talents to some rousing and exciting violence throughout the production. His stamp is clear and carnal, especially during the fight in the middle of the show that seamlessly binds Eddie from a domestic brawl with May to a line of defense with Martin, May’s new boyfriend (played by Jonathan Wilde).

Wilde, though he plays a secondary character, is oddly the glue that holds this production together. Grand entrance included, the scenes Wilde is in are decidedly more magnetic, particularly in a moment shared between Shaffer and Wilde in which Eddie offers the secrets of his sordid past with May. Wilde’s depth of character, both archetypal and sincere, draws out from Shaffer what was lacking in his earlier scenes with Bender, which consisted mostly of yelling. From the moment the lights come up on Shaffer’s Marlboro Man physique, the archetype is clear but we are waiting to see that Lost Boy buried beneath the dirt and horse sweat of a Cowboy, which is finally revealed when he pairs with Wilde. Wilde is genuine in his performance and garnered big laughs with his portrayal of this honest simpleton. Wilde, never over-thinking, presents a versatile, uniquely Shepardian character.

While archetypes are prevalent in Shepard’s work, what makes the characters so interesting are their subtle contradictions while being absorbed and trapped within those passionate types. In Fool For Love, Shepard understands and plays with the idea that passion is warmth and wrath, suffering and ecstasy, rage and rapture. This production has the wrath, suffering, and rage part down.

One of the things that provided some interesting depth to this production was the creative lighting design by Christina Watanabe. She ingeniously took risks with surreal lighting choices, like a vast, violet, starry, sky splashed across the confined and ugly motel walls against the more realistic, dirty, colors of the harsh reality that’s imagined by May and Eddie. Krause pairs Watanabe's stimulating lighting design with moments of contrasting symbolism. For instance, the first time the dreamy universe is displayed is when The Old Man (Bill Weeden) explains to Eddie what realism is. Then, the last time we see it is at the end of the play, when the truth of the story hits home. Together with a thorough costume design by Tod Michaels, right down to the sweat stain running down the middle of Eddie’s back, a stirring sound design by Justin Zalkin providing a couple jump-in-my-seat moments of explosions, horses, and car alarms, and a stark and gritty scenic design by William George McGarvy, the designers really help to bring this production to life.

Like many of Shepard’s plays, it is what is behind the words and actions that are most powerful in Fool For Love. If you’ve ever struggled with a relationship that was a “can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em” battle or where the love was foolishly worth the pain, then pop on down and give Fool For Love, at The Living Theatre, a shot.

(Fool For Love is at The Living Theatre, 21 Clinton Street (below Houston) through March 22nd. Performance times are Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm. It is one hour with no intermission. Tickets are $25, available online at www.livingtheatre.org.)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Frigid New York: The Hefner Monologues

By Le-Anne
one-man show • based on true stories • anecdotal • clever writing

BOTTOM LINE: A one-man show about the life of a black sheep trying to discover who he is.

Upon looking at the title The Hefner Monologues one might expect to hear the charismatic tales of a modern-day Casanova, or perhaps true stories inspired by the infamous namesake. Well, the above is partly true. While the original Playboy does have an influence on our subject, (they are related to each other, albeit somewhat estranged), this comedy is focused on anything but a “playboy.” Playwright and performer, John Hefner, spins endearing tales and laugh-out-loud anecdotes of his very un-Hef-like life in this one man show of strife, first loves, and coming of age, in the shadow of this notable name. Hefner’s performance is endearing as he fumbles through his amusing and awkward history. The use of specificity in his writing provides for instant camaraderie with the audience. A particular “X-Files” reference was greeted with guffaws from the house. One may identify with a job at Bennigan’s, a trip to JoAnn Fabrics, or that life-changing experience during a trip abroad. His description of his first encounter with the elusive alcoholic elixir, absinthe, is entertaining, modern-day poetry. The Hefner Monologues is making a tour of festivals all over North America. Check out the website www.TheHefner.com for more information.

(The Hefner Monologues is at The Red Room, 85 E. 4th St., NYC. Thurs., Mar. 05 @ 10:30pm, Fri., Mar. 06 @ 7:30pm, Sun., Mar. 08 at 1pm. Tickets are $12 available by calling Smarttix at 212-868-4444 or online at www.FRIGIDnewyork.info)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

ZOMBIE (Theatre Row Studio)

By Scott
disturbing • one-man show • 75 Minutes • left me cold

Bill Connington as Quentin P. in ZOMBIE. c Dixie Sheridan

BOTTOM LINE: This story wouldn’t lure me into a van.

I don’t really know what to say about ZOMBIE. On paper it has all the makings of a big hit, and it probably will be. It is a carryover from last summer’s New York Fringe Festival where it enjoyed a sold-out run. It has been getting rave reviews all over town. It is based on a novella written by Pulitzer Prize nominated author Joyce Carol Oates. It is adeptly adapted and performed by Bill Connington. The production values are all crisp and top notch. Everything about this play points towards the hit that it probably will be. And yet I hated it.

Okay, maybe “hate” is too strong, but I didn’t like it. Now there is a very good chance that my strong reaction, albeit negative, is exactly what the creators of ZOMBIE are trying to achieve. And if that is the case, and if that is what you want from a theatrical experience, then you should definitely go see it. But the main problem I had with ZOMBIE was not so much the subject matter (a gay serial killer who kidnaps and mutilates young men in the Detroit area) or even the narrative structure (one man onstage breaking the fourth wall and telling his story directly to the audience), it was the complete lack of humanity revealed by Quentin P, Connington's character. I understand, of course, that we are dealing with a serial killer here, but if I am going to be asked to invest time in someone's story, particularly a monster, I need something – a hint or suggestion that there is a wounded, vulnerable human being in there that just flipped a circuit and went the wrong way – and that he needs to tell me his story for his own redemption...that he needs to be heard in order to be healed. I will listen to that. I can identify with that. I can potentially see myself in that and can project all my fears about the worst potentials of myself onto that. But ZOMBIE is written and played with an emotional distance that left me not only cold, but out in the cold.

From the moment the play started, I found it very hard to be engaged or to stay focused. This story of a man who was able to lure men into his van could not lure my attention for more than two or three minutes at a time. My mind continually wandered, and when I forced my attention back on the play, I felt only disgust for Quentin, not the requisite pathos or sympathy or even curiosity for the details of his depravity that would make this play work for me. Eventually even the production values, the harsh lighting and sparse antiseptic set started to work against me. About twenty minutes before it ended, I wanted to get out of there. The entire event was stifling.

Clearly, however, it seems to be just me. As I mentioned, the notices for this play have been incredibly positive, and the audience I saw the play with was incredibly responsive. Connington’s character work is flawless and his focus onstage effectively disturbing. But it just wasn’t enough to draw me in. And I really wanted to like this play. I really did. And while I concede that everything it does it does exceedingly well, I have to admit that all it did for me, was give me seventy-five minutes to contemplate where I was going to go for drinks after the show.

(ZOMBIE plays at Theatre Row's Studio Theatre, 410 West 42 Street, through March 28th. Performance times are Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $21.25 and can be purchased online at ticketcentral.com or by calling 212-279-4200. For more info, visit zombietheplay.com.)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Frigid New York: habeas corpus

By Le-Anne
in the style of a “happening” • contact physical improv • philosophical • interactive-ish • you get a little surprise gift at the end!

BOTTOM LINE: True performance art.

This year Frigid presents, habeas corpus, a performance art piece driven by the question “What would you like to be rid of?” This experience, produced by “the real kim harmon,” not only asks audience members to contribute by writing something they would like to be rid of on a blue card and depositing them in a case minutes before the show begins but also by inviting people to submit responses to therealkimharmon.com to be incorporated into the current production. Various responses, presumably from said online submissions, as well as past mailings, voicemails, and e-mails from the original conception of this project a year ago, are projected on the back wall. Things such as “The dress I lost my virginity in,” “unnecessary speechification,” and “rape” flash by.

Meanwhile, the three actors, (Kim Harmon, Laureen Briggs, Denzil Meyers), and guitar player and musician, (Wilson Novitzki), use repetition of action, such as the smashing of various gifts, aggressive contact improv, talking over one-another simultaneously, and direct audience address to encourage the act of acceptance. Meyers reads the blue cards aloud, giving these “things you would like to be rid of” back to the audience members, either by guessing who wrote what, or just random assignment. Novitzki takes a break from his guitar and assists Meyers in this project. Both men show a sense of humor and provide some welcome laughter with this part of the show. During all of this Meyers is wrapped by the other actors in a symbolic clear barrier of saran wrap, saying that the very things we attempt to get rid of are the same things that are always there, so rather than trying to rid ourselves of them, we ought to embrace them. One blue card said, “box of old toys;” Meyers asked if he could have them.

The artists involved in “the real kim harmon performance collective” proudly present habeas corpus as an ever-evolving work in progress. More like a living art exhibit than a play, this theatre piece is sure to get you thinking.

(habeas corpus is performed at Under St. Marks Theater, 94 St. Marks Place btwn 1st Ave and Ave A., on Tues. March 03 at 7:30pm, Wed. March 04 at 6pm, and Sun. March 08 at 2:30pm. Tickets are $13 -- bring an object you want to get rid of and get a $3 discount! Call Smarttix at 212-868-4444 or online at FRIGIDnewyork.info.)

Frigid New York: Are We Freaks?

By Le-Anne
slap-stick style humor • four short stories sharing a theme • has an “and the moral is” kind of feel • science fiction-y

BOTTOM LINE: Unusual people experience some not so unusual feelings. The question is proposed, “what is a freak?” both literally and figuratively through side-show freaks and more.

The title of Bricken Sparacino’s new play, presented in this year’s Frigid Festival, asks Are We Freaks? According to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Ed., a freak is “a sudden fancy; odd notion; whim, b: an odd or unusual happening.” So based on this definition then, no. No real freak occurrences happen to anybody in Are We Freaks?

Sure, the Wonder-ful Twins (Sparacino and Jennie Inchausti) can’t be separated so they walk around holding each other, fashioning their own “Siamese twin” posture, but they justify their actions by explaining that they don’t like to be without each other. Nothing whimsical there. A bit codependent, but not whimsical. Two friends and coworkers, Caitlin the Cat (Melanie Wehrmacher) and Leslie the Lobster Girl (Kara M. Tyler), are trapped in a trailer after a big storm. Not too unusual. Unpleasant? Yes. Unusual? Not really. Then three sorority sisters have a falling out because two of the girls, Pam (Hannah Wolfe) and Devon (Annalyse McCoy), are bad-mouthing their friend, Abby (Joy Gabriel). Being terribly hurt, Abby lashes out and takes revenge on her mean-spirited sisters. While immature and certainly not the best way to handle the situation, sadly this is not an unusual response at all. Lastly, best friends Annabelle (Sparacino), and Lizz (Uma Incrocci) wish that they could find a man that they liked as well as each other. Annabelle buys a magic mask and wishes for a man who is exactly like Lizz. In “Freaky Friday” fashion, her wish comes true. This is maybe a stretch of the imagination but freakish? No, not according to the above. She asked for something, she got it. Fantastical, sure. Technically speaking though, not odd.

Did I fail to mention that Caitlin the Cat really is part human and part cat, complete with excess fur and long tail, or that Leslie the Lobster Girl has red claws for hands? Did I forget to tell you that Abby harnesses telekinetic powers and is able to curse Pam and Devon so that Pam is grossly disfigured, literally showing her insides on her outsides, and that Devon has no control over saying her inner thoughts out loud? Also, small detail, the Wonder-ful twins never, ever, let go of each other in any -- that’s right -- any, situation. This is perhaps on the abnormal side. Webster’s continues to say a freak is, “any abnormal animal, person, or plant; monstrosity.” All right ladies, I hate to break it to you but yes, technically speaking, you are freaks. No worries, since a freak is also “a devotee or buff,” anyone who reads this is now a freak definition freak.

See Are We Freaks? if you are interested in seeing “freaks” experience some not so freaky emotions. The play shows us that, in life, we are all freaks but that none of us are alone or experiencing abnormal lives. Unless, by chance, you happen to be “a postage stamp with an error that occurred in the printing or perforation process,” because that would be freaky.

(Are We Freaks? performs at The Kraine Theater Wed. March 04 at 10:30pm, Sat. March 07 at 7pm and Sun. March 08 at 2:30pm. It is 45 min. with no intermission. Tickets are $15 and available at smarttix.com. Or go to frigidnewyork.info for more.)

Kaspar Hauser (The Flea)

By Molly
a "musical theatre piece" • a little Brecht, a little Fosse • high quality production with talented singers • only $25 and definitely worth the price • too big for its space
Preston Martin and Nicolas Greco in Kaspar Hausen

BOTTOM LINE: A remarkably well-executed, near-opera, off-off-Broadway. For-serious.

Off-off-Broadway can be a tricky class of theatre and as an audience member you never really know what to expect. On one hand, off-off productions are generally affordable (Kaspar Hauser is just $25). On the other hand, the off-off world usually offers new work, generally of an experimental nature. And with that comes the gamut of quality: self-important crap on one side and creative genius on the other with myriad stops in between. The two most important factors for good off-off theatre are talent and money. Enter: The Flea, a leading off-off company in New York that has both the people and the cash to illuminate their stage. Their latest production, an operetta called Kaspar Hauser, is a wonderful new musical production well worth the price of admission.

Kaspar Hauser, by Elizabeth Swados and Erin Courtney, is an acutely developed, gloriously produced "musical theatre piece" as the press notes say. I'd call it an operetta: it's almost entirely sung and the musical patterns mimic the drama and conversations as the plot develops. At the same time, it's not light and farcical like operettas tend to be, but it is upbeat and also maintains some qualities of traditional musical theatre. Ok fine, we'll go with "musical theatre piece."

This new production is based on a true story from the 1800's in Germany. Kaspar Hauser is a boy kept in captivity as a child and released into society when he is 14. Without any interaction and socialization, he emerges a feral child, unable to communicate and without any skills to live on his own. He is embraced by the Germans though, and becomes a celebrity in his own rite. He is given care and nurturing and quickly adapts to his new way of life. The story turns tragic though, when Kaspar is taken away from the town and locked up again. Turns out he is royalty and his aunt had him removed from the family as a baby to give her own son a chance to gain royal rank without competition from his cousin. Kaspar's notoriety makes the aunt nervous that his true background will be revealed.

Preston Martin plays Kaspar and his interpretation of this character's innocence, intrigue and pain is brought out in the most finite of ways. Martin truly becomes Kaspar, his performance is endearing, disturbing, and above all fully-committed. The chorus of 18 plays all of the other roles, many times as a big group of party guests or villagers. Their voices are tremendous and the orchestrations show off their choral abilities. For such a small space, the amplification is brilliant as well; there is no need to mic anyone, yet the sound carries with perfect balance.

My only beef with Kaspar Hauser is that it desperately needs a bigger performance space. Although it's well-staged by director and composer Elizabeth Swados and the set is creatively crafted making use of levels and movable pieces, there's just a lot happening right up in your face. There is certainly an intimacy when presented in this fashion, but ultimately I felt a strong desire to lean back so I could take everything in from one vantage point, rather than swing my head from left to right and back again. The talent, story, music, costumes, light and set are all presented well and would blossom even further with space to move.

But that shouldn't be a deterrent if you like experimental musical theatre. Kaspar Hauser is an awesome work in many ways and hopefully it will get a life after The Flea's premiere. With a weird and creepy vibe, it's refreshing to see new, quality work taking a risk.

(Kaspar Hauser plays through March 28th at The Flea Theatre, 41 White Street between Broadway and Church Street. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 7pm and Saturday at 3pm and 7pm. It runs 90 minutes with 1 intermission. Tickets are $25. For a complete performance calendar and tickets, visit www.theflea.org or call 212-352-3101.)

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Frigid New York: Recess

By Le-Anne
one woman show • uses multi-media • a bare-bones production

BOTTOM LINE: Recess is a raw look at life through the eyes of seven-year-old NYC public school children as told by one young woman.

Hats off to the New York Frigid Festival. The Horse Trade Theatre Group in association with Exit Theatre (the theatre company that runs the San Francisco Fringe Festival) and CAFF (The Canadian association of Fringe Festivals) have created a festival that stands out from the crowd. Unlike it’s popular counterparts, the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), the Midtown Theatre Festival, and the popular summertime Fringe Festival, this wintertime version strives to stay true to the grassroots experiment. The Frigid gives 100% of the box office sales back the artists. They also do not take any royalties from future productions. Because they are not focused on the commercial success of each production the Frigid is a real hot bed for creativity, experimental theatre, and freedom of expression. This also means that they are able to keep their ticket prices down...way down, shows are only $8-$16 or you can purchase a Festival Pass and see three shows for $30. At $10 a pop, that’s cheaper than a movie! Another uniquely Frigid thing is that they rotate the over one-hundred-fifty performances among Horse Trade’s three intimate theatre spaces in the East Village, (Under St. Mark’s, Kraine, and The Red Room). So while other festivals have gone quite mainstream and bougie, Frigid has a very proletariat feel. You can make a day of it, enjoying the eclectic ambiance of the East Village you pound the pavement trucking between shows, maybe even grabbing a quick bite from one of the great hole-in-the-wall eateries or cafes that the Village has to offer, filling your day with art, theatre, and the spirit of community.

Recess, by Keep it Movin’ Productions, is one of the thirty productions being presented at Frigid. This one-woman show is written and performed by Asian-American actress, Una Aya Osato and directed by Moises Belizario. In this fiercely honest piece Osato explores the youth of the NYC public school system, in particular the students of a second grade class in the Bronx. Through an innovative use of mixing live performance with projected video performance, Osato is able to interact with herself as she portrays a wide range of characters. Through the eyes of these children, we see a heartbreaking range of potential and lack thereof. Osato humorously portrays one young boy who has no idea that he has any sort of potential and juxtaposes him with another character, Sherita, a young girl who knows her potential but doesn’t believe she has any way to achieve it. This character was the spring board for Recess, inspired by the 5-year-old daughter of one of Osato’s best friends. The little girl announced at her mother’s wake, “It’s ok to cry everyone, crying’s ok, but it’s not gonna change nothing, it’s not gonna bring my mommy back.” A direct quote, Osato delivered this line in her play, and you could almost feel the eerie sadness mixed with a desire to create change and hope for our youth spread through the audience.

(Recess performs at The Kraine Theater/ 85 East 4th St., New York, NY 10003. It runs 1 hour with no intermission. Sun., March 01 @ 4pm, Thurs., March 05 @ 7:30pm, Sat., March 07 @ 1pm. Tickets are $15, $12 for students and seniors and are available by calling Smarttix at 212-868-4444 or online at www.FRIGIDnewyork.info.)