offoffonline's Best of Season Memories: 2005-2006

Our staff writers take a look at the performances and experiences that have made this season of Off-Off Broadway theater memorable. Please click on the show titles to look back at the production's archived review.

 

Mitch Montgomery: My most memorable experience Off-Off-Broadway this year occurred the week that I saw "The Snow Hen" at the Charlie Pineapple Theater. It was the week of the blizzard, just after Valentine's Day, when I first risked the trip out to Brooklyn. I can distinctly remember walking down the completely vacant streets with snow piled up beside me. It actually took two attempts for me to see the show—we critics are fallible, it turns out—because the first time I misread the curtain time in the press rep's e-mail.


The Snow Hen

The second trip out to Williamsburg was two days later, and the snow had melted. Still, the idea of frost seemed to cling to the streets and the potential energy in the air. After wandering through this arresting environment, I stepped into the theater at around 7:40. As 8 p.m. approached, I became aware that no one else had shown up. I was alone, isolated in this theater. Finally, the gentleman working the box office came over to me at five till 8 and asked what I wanted to do. Would it make me uncomfortable if no one else was in the audience? Would I like to make one more trip out to the Charlie Pineapple? I told him that I would love to see this show alone, and I meant it. I was actually disappointed when four other people showed up. The Snow Hen was the best thing I saw all season, and the actual process of seeing it put me in the perfect mood to absorb its haunting account of loneliness at the end of the world.


 

Les Hunter: The two playwrights whom I was most impressed with this year Off-Off Broadway are Rinne Groff and Mat Smart. Groff's piece, "What Then," at the Ohio Theater was innovative, funny, and disturbing all at once. It seamlessly blended the genres of science fiction and domestic comedy to create a glimpse of a dystopian future whose social decay is mirrored by the breakdown of family structure. These forces work to create something that feels familiar but new.


What Then

Though I did not review it for offoffonline, I was lucky enough to see Smart's piece at the Tank, "Music for a High Ceiling," a very short snippet of a play that is achingly eloquent. The piece took the form of a professorial lecture that used evocative music and pitch-perfect characterization.


William Cordeiro: Looking back over the year, I find my taste tends toward revivals of classics that take a dark turn and challenging, new experimental shows. Basically, I like my theater smart and grim. How appropriate, then, that two of my favorite playwrights this year were Mat Smart and David Grimm.


Smart's "Music for a High Ceiling," a one-act in an impressive night of new playwriting titled "Couchworks," and his full-length, "The Debate Plays," both displayed a deft humor that demonstrated his sure sense of the hip, downtown zeitgeist. But my favorite scene by Smart may have been one he audaciously wrote without dialogue, in which the actors lip-sync a pop song while performing a slow-motion Old West shootout.


If Smart proved that less is often more, Grimm's sex farce extravaganza, "Measure for Pleasure," proved that more can be more too. Chock-full of bawdy puns and pungent wit, it exulted in its sheer high camp (with a showstopping performance by actor Euan Morton playing dual roles). Kiran Rikhye's verse play, "Stage Kiss," mined a similar vein of camp that likewise played wittily with the conventions of past theatrical traditions. Both plays managed to find some meaningfully new things to say about that age-old topic, love.


Stage Kiss

My favorite revival this year was "The Revenger's Tragedy" by the wonderful Red Bull Theater company. With great performances from the whole cast, fabulous costumes, and bloodcurdling guts and gore, director Jesse Berger did a superb job bringing this grizzly Jacobean masterpiece back to life—and death.


The hardest-working man Off-Off-Broadway, though, has to be theater director Michael Horn of the Michael Chekhov Theater Company, who is attempting to produce all 45 of Sam Shepard's plays at the new Big Little Theater in the span of one year. All of the plays I've seen in the Sam Shepard Festival have minimal but high-quality production values—a testament to Horn's tireless efforts.

My favorite choreography this year was by Lynn Brown and Lynn Marie Ruse in the last act of their dance theater work "Clever Hans." A deliberately awkward dance used rocks, pebbles, and garbage cans to produce an effect that was painful, beautiful, and funny all at once.

As for design elements, the National Theater of the United States of America's maximal set of three different stages, partially constructed during the performance of "ABSN: RJAB," challenged its audiences to consider how theater itself was constructed.

Peter Ksander's set design for the spectacular "The Sewers"—still playing at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater—blew me away: an entire fallout shelter room hovers a few feet off the ground. Lighting designer Miranda K. Hardy also should be give credit too, since every nook and cranny of Ksander's set is illuminated with eerie secrets. "The Sewers," in fact, is probably both the grimmest and smartest play this year.


Sarah Bolson: This season, I was once again reminded how truly diverse Off-Off Broadway is. The shows I reviewed—a small revival of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning "Proof," an irreverent and raunchy version of "A Christmas Carol," and a sketch comedy about the perils of dating in New York, to name a few—could not have been more different. But each of these productions, as well as the other ones that I saw, captured what makes the Off-Off Broadway experience enriching year after year. You get to bear witness as a group of people who are utterly devoted to the theater—why else work Off-Off Broadway?—create something they are passionate about. As any Off-Off Broadway theatergoer or reviewer can attest, this often comes with mixed results at best. But no matter how many misguided productions I sit through, I still get excited by the honesty and rawness of the work being performed by this community.


Proof


Amy Krivohlavek: Produced by Visible Theater, Sam Forman's "Krankenhaus Blues" is a surrealist riff on a most unlikely mix: disability, genocide, and show business. Three brilliant actors— Christine Bruno, Bill Green, and especially Joe Sims— offered thrillingly raw and human performances that have stuck with me ever since, and Donna Mitchell's minimalist staging smartly kept our attention focused on them. According to Visible Theater's founder and artistic director, Krista Smith, the show will get a new life this fall when it is staged Oct. 5-Nov. 5 at the Abingdon Theater Arts Complex. So if you missed it last year, don't miss it this time around.

Megan Lawrence gave a thrilling performance of a much different ilk in last fall's "Monica! The Musical," where she showed off impeccable comic timing as the intelligent (and very pissed off) Hillary

Clinton. She brought an exciting edge to this rather lightweight show (an entry in the 2005 New York Musical Theater Festival), and after this strong beginning, she went on to play Gladys in the Broadway revival of "The Pajama Game," a tart, spunky performance that earned her a much-deserved Tony Award nomination.


Monica The Musical

The band GrooveLily could also be defined as spunky, and its members brought their holiday-themed musical "Striking 12" to New York last December. The three musician/actors, Valerie Vigoda (electric violin), Glen Lewin (drums), and Brendan Milburn (keyboards), offered their own unique brand of storytelling, giving Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Match Girl" a modern spin with a fresh, contemporary sound in a near-magical staging by Ted Sperling. And there's good news: this captivating show will likely return this holiday season (venue to be announced).


Doug Strassler: One of the greatest pleasures of the season was the production of "To Nineveh" by Working Man's Clothes, a really thoughtful parable. I'm not the biggest fan of religious allegory, but they managed to pull off that show with such aplomb that it had me thinking for days afterward, without realizing while watching it how much food for thought there really was. I've found that's customary for this production company.


To Nineveh


Sean Michael O'Donnell: The most intriguing part of the 2005-2006 season was the resurgence and reinvention of Ibsen. Les Freres Corbusier brought Elizabeth Meriwether's divine Ibsen spoof "Heddatron" to the HERE Arts Center. A brilliant and campy send-up of "Hedda Gabler," it featured a fantastic Carolyn Baeumler along with a cast of robots. Equal parts wry observation, social commentary, and literary criticism, "Heddatron" was a delirious adventure and the most original show of the past season.


Heddatron

Wakka Wakka Productions also took on Ibsen with the unique and imaginative "The Death of Little Ibsen," a fascinating and hilarious deconstruction of the famed Norwegian playwright's life. "Little Ibsen" and its cast of puppets took the audience on an insightful journey into the bizarre world of Ibsen's mind. It also showcased the strengths of an exceptionally talented and dedicated theater group. Both shows were brilliant in their conception and fearless in their execution.


Kimberly Patterson: One memorable show that I had the pleasure of reviewing was Lake Simons and John Dyer’s interpretation of "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" at HERE. Their production contained music and puppets, and used both in creative ways. Often, puppeteers manipulated the actress portraying Alice as if she were yet another (nonhuman) prop. They certainly made me think about how performers can use objects and the space around them.


Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

I also enjoyed several different productions of Shakespearean drama this season: Reduxion Theater Company’s "Hamlet" and The American Globe Theater’s "The Merchant of Venice". These two companies put on straightforward versions of these plays, instead of modernizing them or offering any sort of experimental staging. What both productions did very well was internalize the Elizabethan language so that the dialogue was very clear and the characters’ actions well-motivated and plausible. Even though the shows appeared traditional, they still felt fresh and contemporary.


Lauren Snyder: As a theater critic, one tends to fall into that terrible trap of "expectations." When it comes to Off-Off Broadway, however, this can actually be a good thing. One expects the budget to be low, the sets and costumes to be minimal, and the Shakespearean adaptations to be straightforward - so when any of these elements are particularly strong, the reviewer is pleasantly surprised.


Dead City

This year, two very different shows made a lasting impression by challenging my ideas of what a downtown show looks like, and what a non-Equity Shakespeare production sounds like. Sheila Callaghan's "Dead City" used a combination of moving walls and soft-focus video projections to produce a New York City of startling power and darkness, which complemented the show's lyrical script and intense performances. William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" was transformed by alcohol and a group of bawdy twenty-somethings into "Twelfth Night: The Drinking Game", a hilarious exercise in stimulating the brain cells that weren't being killed off by liquor. Both shows managed to defy my expectations in unique ways, and both renewed my faith in the creativity and passion that exists Off-Off Broadway.


Antoinette Nwandu: My season was highlighted by something old and something new as two artists at opposite ends of their careers made impressions that will not soon be forgotten. We'll start with the new: In the play "The Mistakes Madeline Made", the promising young playwright, Elizabeth Meriwether, cooked up a love story set in a small basement office that existed solely to run the day-to-day functions of an extremely wealthy couple. Not only was the hyper-banality of the office setting pitch-perfect (the dramatic struggle involved individually wrapped handi-wipes), but the oddball attraction between the main character, an apathetic girl mourning the loss of her brother, and her quirky (to put it mildly) officemate was refreshing and genuine.


The Mistakes Madeline Made

The second great--seeing La MaMa's recent production of "King Lear"--really made me appreciate the years of training that go into the craft of acting. In 1956 Alvin Epstein played the fool to Orson Welles' Lear, and though the production was critically a disaster (by opening night Welles had sprained both ankles and had to reblock the entire show with Lear in a wheelchair), Epstein went on to play Lucky in the premier of Waiting for Godot. And now, exactly forty years later, Epstein, at 81, played Lear as a petulant and pugnacious old fool. His Lear was the result of a lifetime on the stage and a wonderful tribute to one of Shakespeare's most empathetic characters.


Jill Jichetti: Most Creative Use of Pre-Packaged Snack Foods


Belly

Off the Leesh’s production of Julie Tortorici’s "Belly" featured Tortorici as Frannie, an obsessive-compulsive housewife who, despite her obvious quirks, is not much different from the rest of us. Though fearful of leaving the safety of her own home, Frannie welcomed the audience into her living room and into her confidence. Effectively utilizing audience interaction is no easy feat, even in a small theater, but Tortorici’s warmth was contagious. Once she enlisted the help of another Hostess—cupcakes for everyone!—it seemed that none in the house could refuse her charm. With assistance from director Alicia Arinella, Frannie had us all eating out the palm of her hand—literally and figuratively.


Marlon Hurt : As funny as it might sound, the most significant moment of my recent time as a critic was also my first true—albeit mildly—negative experience. I had the opportunity to review Michael Smith’s "Trouble" at Theater for the New City this past January. The prospect had me more excited than usual because of Smith’s near iconic stature in the Off-Off-Broadway community; his excellent reviewing for The Village Voice in the 1950’s and ‘60’s single-handedly put Off-Off-Broadway on the cultural map at a time when no other critics would so much as sniff in the direction of such landmark OOB venues as LaMama or Caffe Cino.

"Trouble" is a kind of roman a clef: the adventures of Smith’s protagonist, Tess Byerson, are a thinly veiled retelling of the exploits of Bess Myerson, a Bronx native and the first Jewish Miss America (1945). Smith, however, eschews her glory years in favor of her later, more tabloid-friendly escapades, when she was embroiled in corruption and shoplifting charges, even as she hobnobbed with New York’s artistic and political nobility.

The atmosphere in the theater was positively charged with history. Playwrights, actors, and directors from OOB’s infancy were in attendance, as was Smith himself, whom I had the great pleasure of meeting.

My review was less positively charged. I didn’t find the evening offensively sub par, but neither was it gripping. The play was, in short, forgettably mediocre, and I went to work on my review with the intention of sliding the knife in as gently as possible.

One minor point I made, however, read less gently than I intended, or so Smith informed me in an email exchange after the review was published. His view was not without merit, though I had support for my opinion in the major theme of the play itself. What struck me, however, was that we were having a discussion at all. OOB has always counted as one of its supreme virtues the shared community of its participants. There may be legends but there are no elites. Smith took issue with one of my criticisms and shared it with me, and though I didn’t necessarily agree with his objection, I was moved by the idea that the father of OOB criticism—on whom my job is essentially modeled—didn’t think twice about corresponding with a complete unknown.

Outside of Off-Off-Broadway, how many other fields can boast that their luminaries, no matter how storied, are never less than their peers?


Adrienne Cea : This season I was most impressed with the work of Manhattan Children's Theatre; a downtown based company whose mission is to provide affordable and high quality performances for children and their families. With their 2005-2006 season featuring, "Sideways Stories At Wayside School", "Brave Irene", "Snow Maiden", "The Last Of The Dragons", and "Jack and The Beanstalk", Artistic director, Bruce Merrill, and Executive Director, Laura Stevens, consistently met their objective. Their clever, unique and intelligent shows proved that when children's theatre is done right it can appeal to more than just children.


Sideways Stories At Wayside School


Deidre McFadyen: Two serious dramas about family and mental illness left the most lasting impression on me over the past year of reviewing Off-Off Broadway theater.

Playwright Barbara Hammond mined her own parents’ history to create "Norman and Beatrice: A Marriage in Two Acts", which was mounted by Synapse Productions at the Connelly Theater in the East Village in April. In its compelling first act, this modest play shows a wife gamely trying to maintain a veneer of normalcy while managing the erratic behavior of her husband, who suffers from dementia. The New Group’s "Jayson with a Y", staged at the Lion Theater on Theater Row in June, captures the anguish of two sisters as they struggle to deal with their autistic nephew following his mother’s sudden death.


Norman and Beatrice: A Marriage in Two Acts

Giving both plays such deep resonance was their Pointillist depiction of these complex mental disorders and compelling acting by Graeme Malcolm as the elderly Norman and Miles Purinton as 13-year-old Jayson.

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