Harry Houdini is arguably the most famous magician of all time, but the circumstances around his death remain suspiciously murky. Did he truly die suddenly of appendicitis, or were there more malevolent forces afoot? Cynthia von Buhler’s The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini combines murder mystery, film noir, and comic book genres to create a genuinely fun immersive theater experience wherein audiences can explore the mysteries surrounding Houdini’s death.
Following their previous collaboration on the 2010 musical The Scottsboro Boys, director-choreographer Susan Stroman and composer John Kander have returned to the Vineyard Theatre for The Beast in the Jungle, a haunting memory play warning that the biggest danger in life is the road not taken.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, a new musical by Hannah Moscovitch and Ben Caplan from Canada’s 2b Theatre Company, is the story of two Jewish refugees fleeing Romania in 1908. Chaim and Chaya Moscovitch meet in an immigration holding facility in Halifax, Canada. Chaim is 19, hardworking, gentle, and eager to start anew—his entire family has been killed in a pogrom. He is also ready to fall in love. Chaya is 24, practical and hard-nosed. She lost the husband of her youth, Yochai, to typhus and, soon after, their child as well.
Bromance, an acrobatic show from London that has opened at the New Victory Theater, offers strength-defying acts and acrobatics. Geared towards a younger audience, the creation by Charlie Wheeller, Louis Gift and Beren D’Amico includes hand-to-hand feats, the cyr wheel and various types of dancing. They incorporate humorous gestures and silly body movements that are choreographed to draw infectious laughs from children.
Occupied Territories, a visceral and exciting new play co-written by Nancy Bannon and Mollye Maxner, focuses on two sets of characters separated by 50 years. It begins and ends in the basement of a family home, where Alex (Ciela Elliott) has come with her Aunt Helena (Kelley Rae O’Donnell) to bury her grandfather. They are quickly joined by Alex’s mother, Jude (Bannon), who is recently out of rehab but still in a halfway house. Jude is trying to connect to Alex after what seems to be a series of disappointments her addiction has wrought in the past.
The musical Lili Marlene takes its name from the famous German love song of World War II, first recorded in 1939. It became a hit among German troops (in spite of Joseph Goebbels’s dislike of it) and was eventually popularized among Allied troops as well, in a famous rendition by Marlene Dietrich in 1944. Yet that’s only an imaginative jumping-off point for the show of the title, which takes place between June 1932 and June 1933, at the tail end of the Weimar Republic and the first days with Adolf Hitler in power.
Few contemporary playwrights embrace the “one for me, one for them” trajectory as starkly as Enda Walsh. The prolific Irish writer/director alternates between loony, incisive chamber psychodramas (Misterman, Ballyturk) and loony, broad crowd-pleasers (Once, Roald Dahl’s The Twits, Lazarus) with a panache that marks him as a distinctly 21st-century artist, hard to pin down and adept at re-invention. His latest St. Ann’s Warehouse transfer, Arlington, sits firmly in the former camp, stretching his trademark idiosyncratic investigation of the effects of isolation on wild, creative minds toward exciting new abstractions.
A night at the newest production of Baghdaddy might begin with a cup of coffee, a doughnut, and a name tag. From the start, the audience is thrown right into the midst of Marshall Pailet and A.D. Penedo’s punchy political musical. Actors sit in the audience, and audience members sit on the stage as the show begins with a support group for the CIA operatives and others who played a role in starting the war in Iraq.
There is much to laugh about in Theatre for a New Audience’s (TFANA) production of Carlo Goldoni's raucously entertaining farce The Servant of Two Masters, and boy, do we laugh. Every formula for comedy is either turned on its head or played to its full predictive hilarity. And when the unpredictable moments happen—this archetype of commedia dell'arte requires a fair amount of improvisation and ad-libbing—the risk of going off-script is richly rewarded. Sobering allusions to our current political theater, and maniacally incoherent strings of dialogue chock-full of anachronism, are rendered tolerable and even enjoyable under the guise of farce. Goldoni's capering plot still holds considerable sway over modern theater: Richard Bean's adaptation of this play, One Man, Two Guvnors, was acclaimed on Broadway in 2012 and made a star of James Corden. The genre possesses enough to buoy the weary theatergoer: ostentation, levity and music. But even endless entertainment has its limits, and Goldoni's 1746 story of cross-dressing sisters and miserly fathers hangs by a silken thread.
Founded in 2006 by director and choreographer Austin McCormick, Company XIV has developed a signature fusion of theater, classical and modern dance, opera, drag, circus, live music, burlesque, and performance art. The title of its latest creation, Paris, is a double entendre of sorts—referring at once to the beloved City of Light as well as the legendary prince of Troy. Indeed, Paris unites Grecian gods and goddesses with Parisian flâneurs and can-can girls, resulting in an indulgent, adults-only revue of sublime talent.
With the peeling walls of the Irondale Center (a former church) as a fitting backdrop, Paris interweaves elements of French bohemia into the Greek myth “The Judgment of Paris.” In this legend, the titular character receives a golden apple from the gods and is charged to award it to the fairest goddess. He chooses Venus, who reciprocates the award with her own, the famed beauty Helen of Troy—thereby triggering the Trojan War. This myth provides a suitable structure for Paris, but the show’s value lies not in its plot but in the variety of performances encountered by Paris (Jakob Karr) on his quest to rid himself of his golden apple.
From his tête-à-tête with Juno (Randall Scotting) to his final rendezvous with Helen (Lea Helle), Karr is stunning as Paris in every context. His duet with Mercury, played by Todd Hanebrink, is especially touching—featuring a series of lifts executed with lightness, yet also with a grounded athleticism. In his visit to the final goddess, Venus, Karr takes a back seat to Storm Marrero's house-filling vocals. Although Marrero, a woman of color, diversifies the show's cast, it is as a singer. Her curvaceous Venus stands in contrast to the dancers (inexplicably, too, her character bears the Roman name for the goddess, rather than Aphrodite). One hopes that the company's pursuit of diversity will eventually spread to the dancers.
Though many modern burlesque companies focus on the female body, Company XIV’s treatment of gender is slightly more fluid. As the dual character Zeus/Fifi, Charlotte Bydwell literally embodies this fluidity as she switches from male god to female coquette. Her costume, designed by Zane Pihlstrom, is half suit and half ball gown, so that Bydwell appears as Zeus when facing stage right and Fifi when facing stage left. This visual gag is delightful at first, but becomes tired by the end of the show. Overall, however, Pihlstrom’s costumes are breathtaking in their dynamism—from a two-tone reversible sequin dress for Venus to the ensemble’s assortment of spangled codpieces.
Jeanette Yew's ingenious lighting design illuminates the gorgeous clothing, implementing an array of sources such as sparkling chandeliers, exposed-bulb footlights, and most notably, a vintage Hollywood director’s’ spotlight on wheels that provides the show’s final iconic vignette.
There are many elements that make this show special and worth seeing, but perhaps its most universal appeal is that—just like the many glimmering rhinestones on the costumes—Paris shines light on a great many facets of human sexuality. There are, of course, moments of tawdry thrusting and heaving piles of quaking bodies; yet there are, too, silhouettes of lovers that steal one’s breath away, and even quieter moments of solitude and fear that expose the vulnerabilities integral to human sexuality. In Paris, sex is funny, scary, beautiful, sad, and, ultimately, a yearning mystery.
Paris runs through Nov. 12 at the Irondale Center (85 South Oxford St. between Fulton Street and Lafayette Avenue in Brooklyn). The show, which contains partial nudity, is open to those 16 and over. Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Tickets start at $25. To book seats, couches or VIP tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.companyxiv.com.
What’s odd about Body: Anatomies of Being at the New Ohio Theatre, is that, as much as it wants to break the audience out of being shocked by nudity, the script doesn’t measure up. The dialogue goads the audience to be comfortable with the body and all of its functions, “Wake up. Fart. Pee. Blow nose while pooping. Burp. Yawn. Drink water. Burp. Cough. Blow nose. Pick at clogged hair follicle under right arm. Burp.” But seriously, to what end? When all the actors have plucked and trimmed their pubic hair to a landing strip, are you really that comfortable with the body? A number of challenges steer this production off purpose.
The performance incorporates modern dance with spoken vignettes, including a very long opening sequence, almost constant movement occurring behind each scene, and a long, repetitious number at the end. Given that the piece is about the body, the movement is appropriate, but for as much effort and rehearsal that must have taken place, it is evident not all the actors are dancers. Choreographed movement is at times erratic and more often distracting. Luckily, lighting director Jay Ryan has a keen eye and a swift hand to drive the focus.
Nine actors, naked except for one, come to the front of the of stage processional-style to form a single line. A Chorus Line comes to mind—“I bet you're looking at my tits.” There is shuffling, scratching, and the occasional clearing of a throat before one actor begins to speak to the audience in a chiding manner about the naked body. And so begins the first of what comes off as a series of lectures—a humanities class on how the public has been taught to be sexual consumers and yet fear nudity, or the science class on how lab mice have been trained with electroshock therapy to avoid cherry blossoms. Later the mice story is embellished further to encompass slavery, awkwardly attempting to put it at the cause of racism today.
The script of Body breaks the fourth wall, pulling focus from multiple story lines in the script, not just for the audience, but, it appears, for those who had a hand in writing it. It is a stumbling block to caring about any of the nine characters. The performance was conceived and directed by Jessica Burr, artistic director of Blessed Unrest. Matt Opatrny, in collaboration with the ensemble, wrote the text. There were few moments where the story lines have closure and some even weave together; however, for the most part it plays as a series of vignettes tied together with a great deal of movement.
Two stories and their characters stand out—Chloe (Sevrin Anne Mason) for her unflinching discussion of body weight and acceptance, hers and others, and Nadezhda (Tatyana Kot) as a Chernobyl and double-mastectomy cancer survivor. Mason’s naked interchange with the artist’s model Martin is fresh.
Chloe: “Don’t see potential when you look at me. This is my body, and it might not change.”
Martin: “You’re beautiful.”
Chloe: “Are you surprised? To feel that for me? For this fat body.”
Martin: “No, not at all. I’m thrilled. Like I’ve just woken up. You woke me up.”
Kot’s delivery of Nadezhda’s shift from gratitude to the frankness about a growing up in a uranium mining town, where everyone has a shortened life expectancy, is unmistakable.
Nadezhda: “But, because of the 53 years they had really nice stuff, stuff that most people in the Soviet Union did not have, stuff like sweatpants from Bulgaria and sneakers from Yugoslavia, and visitors would see that stuff and say, ‘Wow, look at all that stuff you have!’ And that little girl, she would smile and stand very tall in her sweatpants and think, ‘I am so lucky,’ but her father would not smile because he knew about the 53 years. And then the meltdown at Chernobyl happened, and no one smiled anymore.” .
For so many things like these that are right about Body, there are too many more that don’t line up. It’s evident that the cast worked hard, with many moving parts and a narrative that transitions quickly from one to another. A stronger hand to cut extraneous dialogue, direction that needs to shave off the two extra endings, and even a lighter touch, giving actors time to enjoy the comedy when it lands, are just a few starting places that might help bring Body into alignment.
Body: Anatomies of Being runs through May 21 at New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher St. between Greenwich and Washington) in Manhattan. The show carries the warning “Bodies will appear in their natural state.” Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. on Sundays and at 7 p.m. Mondays. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased online at NewOhioTheatre.org or by calling 212-352-3101.
Right out of the gate Marshall Goldberg’s original comedy Daddy Issues gets the audience laughing. As lights go up on the lead character, Donald Moscowitz, the audience sees his perfectly toned tush doing what appear to be butt exercises while he’s looking for his cat. “Here pussy-puss-puss. That’s a good kitty. Meow,” croons Donald.
Set in early ’80s New York City, Daddy Issues centers around Donald, an actor, and the Moscowitz family. Donald’s father, mother and grandmother are the stereotypical overinvolved, overanxious, Jewish parental units. They want to control Donald’s life and they know how to impose layers upon layers of Jewish guilt. They disapprove of his homosexuality, his decorating choices, and his acting career.
Donald (Yuval David is billed in the role, but understudy Stephen Millett was on, without aid of a script, at the performance I saw) is not searching for his cat after all: he’s preparing to audition for a “Little Friskies Cat Food Commercial.” His father, Sid (Tony Rossi), interrupts Donald’s rehearsal, announcing it would make him truly happy for “someone to carry on the Moscowitz name. I would never ask anything of you again.” “Fine!” Donald thinks, jumping at the chance to finally get his father off of his back.
Donald hatches a plan to create a fictional son with the help of his two besties. Henrietta (Elizabeth Klein), a straight casting director who hangs out with Donald, and Levi Krauss (Sam Given), who moonlights as a female impersonator named “Ophelia Crotch.” Donald has Henrietta cast Johnny Walker (Austin Levine), the 10-year-old from downstairs, to play his son, Ryan. Henrietta and Levi have a dispute over which of them should play Mary Ellen McGuire, Ryan’s mom, supposedly Donald’s old college girlfriend. Of course Levi is the better choice. Then who should show up but the real Mary Ellen McGuire (Megan MacPhee), looking for her son Johnny. The confusion begins bringing about a hilarious bungling of lies, deceit, and manipulation.
Although Goldberg writing often produces laughter, some of his jokes are overused and lose their oomph by the end of the show. For example, Grandma Moscowitz (Deb Armelino) continues to repeat the line “What about me? I can’t even die now. Did I mention my bladder dropped?” By the end of the show it just isn’t funny anymore.
It is Sid and Marion Moscowitz (Kate Katcher) that really ground this show, the mother and father who worry and dote over their only son. They love him, but they don’t understand him. Rossi and Katcher have really found the heart of their characters, two traditional parents struggling to understand their relationship with their gay son.
Sam Given, who plays Levi/Ophelia Crotch, really takes on the personality of an attention-hogging drag queen and does a fantastic impression of Liza Minnelli. Also, the singing and dancing talents of Millett and MacPhee shine in a witty song-and-dance break for Donald and Mary Ellen during the show.
Set designer Kevin Klakouski has done a splendid job creating Donald’s tiny, shabby-chic, Hell’s Kitchen apartment, with one exception. A photo of Henrietta and Donald boldly hangs on the wall by the entrance to the kitchen and is never taken down during the false identity scenes. Sid surely would have noticed the photo beforehand, causing a complete breakdown in the duping of the family. Otherwise, a funky nude painting of a man, and the couch, armchairs, and rugs—brown and beige tones with hints of blue and orange that pop—indicate that Donald has a passion for home design. To top it off, lighting designer Terri Tomola provides an overall dinge to Donald’s apartment with low, dull lighting, suggesting that Donald lives in a bad crime area.
The director, David Goldyn, has helped his actors to make strong individual character choices and really create the sense of family. He uses the small stage space wisely, making sure movements don’t become stagnant and boring, while using every surface and space on the stage. He has given the show a steady pace that makes it flow without too many pregnant pauses or noticeable lulls in action. If you a looking for a night full of laughter, Daddy Issues has got you covered.
Daddy Issues runs through April 24. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 3 p.m. on Sunday at the Davenport Theatre (354 West 45th St. between Eight and Ninth avenues). Tickets are $35, available at 866-811-4111 or www.DaddyIssuesThePlay.com.
While some people struggle with racial issues every day, other people have the leisure to study them. In the production of Smart People, the audience peers into the lives of four educated individuals who are all interacting with race in their own way. Some of these characters live a privileged life, while the other characters struggle with racism and stereotyping in their lives. Although this production touches upon important issues that are still prevalent in our society, Smart People decides to not go in depth with the discussion of racism, and instead keeps it as a nice conversation.
If you do decide to see the show, go for the acting. The techniques used by the four actors are impressive and have great chemistry together. During the scenes of love and friendship, Ginny (Anne Son), Valerie (Tessa Thompson), Jackson (Mahershala Ali) and Brian (Joshua Jackson) each have their own ways of dealing with racial issues and navigating through life. They bring comedy to the stage as well as serious and intimate issues that helps the audience follow along with their ongoing struggle of keeping their humanity in academic settings.
Director Kenny Leon does a great job of allowing each actor to have their own moment to shine without making any of the characters seem secondary. With the right timing, the overlapping of conversations becomes one coherent conversation that is entertaining to watch.
Playwright Lydia R. Diamond has an interesting way of approaching the conversation of race and education in Smart People. Diamond creates a space where the audience is separated and detached from the characters on stage. The characters are never allowed to speak to the audience and the characters cannot share any of their inner thoughts. Instead, the audience must rely on the conversations that the characters have with each other or with the people who are not on the stage. When the characters are having multiple conversations at once, Diamond beautifully overlaps the conversations in order to make them sound as if their conversations are intertwining.
These conversations do not really discuss the racist remarks that occur throughout the play. It is up to the audience to decide whether a remark is racist or not. The audience can decide to not think about the comment at all or decide if the other person was just overreacting. The audience is also not asked to reflect upon their own lives and there is nothing in the performance that challenges the audience to interact with the characters. With this type of structure, there is no climax to the play, and no way of knowing where the play is going to lead the audience. This leaves theatergoers sitting in their seats not wondering what will happen next. Instead, the audience can leisurely watch without feeling as if they have to engage or have an opinion about the scenes that unfolds before them.
When the audience walks into the theater, it appears as if they are walking into a lecture hall on their first day of college. With scenes constantly changing, set designer Riccardo Hernandez does an amazing job at having smooth and easy transitions by keeping the set minimalistic and having most of the set pieces on sliding flats. On the other hand, the projections are slightly helpful in identifying the characters’ locations but seem subpar in comparison to the acting and set. Lighting designer Jason Lyons made great choices in having the primary lighting be in sharp and crisp squares. The lighting added character to the stage—especially when only one actor is speaking in the direction of the audience.
Overall, there are a few powerful moments that occur in the play that address racism and sexism in our society. The play is a great example of how powerful actors can play diverse characters that challenge boundaries and stereotypes. However, the play does not fully take on racism and how academia is challenging these stereotypes.
Smart People runs until March 6 at the Tony Kiser Theatre (305 West 43th St. between 8th and 9th Aves.) in Manhattan. Tickets range from $60-$125. To purchase tickets, call 212-246-4422 or visit 2st.com.
Third Rail Projects has a rich production history of placing its audiences on the cusp of collaborative theater. Its dancer-actors are the clicking wheels of a larger machine; they are not themselves the stars of the show, but let an almost spiritual illusion take over that billing. In the long-running hit Then She Fell, experiential theater transcends all of its normal bounds to create just that illusion. The production, which is written, directed, designed and choreographed by Zach Morris, Tom Pearson and Jennine Willett, is a haunting take on Lewis Carroll's book "Through the Looking-Glass," and it derives every last morsel of dark lyricism from its source material.
The show is set on the many-roomed floors of Kingsland Ward, a spooky hospital that looms above a dark, deserted street in Williamsburg. Moans and wails echo out of its windows; indeed, the setting seems more appropriate for a haunted Halloween night, seeing as a gated Lutheran church stands to the hospital's right side. "This is kind of creepy," says an unknowing audience member, as he cranes his neck to see the church's grey bell tower. We are yet to discover Then She Fell's liminal exploits; the thought of pushing boundaries doesn't often occur to the ordinary theatergoer, and the prospect of it seems titillating.
A 15-member audience is invited into the building and asked to follow only two rules: do not speak unless spoken to, and do not open any closed doors. And once inside, the second rule is quite hard to follow. The building blooms into a magnificently bedecked universe of color, romance and magic. The beauty of each tableau is indescribable; each room is a gloriously fantastical rabbit hole with Alice, the Red Queen and the White Rabbit for guides. But in the files, papers and pictures we locate in these rooms, the audience realizes that Carroll's inspiration for Alice in Wonderland (Alice Pleasance Liddell, an 11-year-old English girl) is more a freewheeling obsession. His memories spin us across the many rooms of his mind, where Alice appears in twos and mirrors haunt the reflection of his face and soul.
Every moment of the two-hour experience is tracked by a mesmerizing soundtrack of organs, piano fortes and cooing violins. Consequently, there is little speech or dialogue, an aspect of the production that surprisingly, doesn't detract from the illusion. Rather, it serves to affirm that happy deception (the sound designer is an inspired Sean Hagerty). Colors that complement this fantasy are used to great effect; the Red Queen is fiery in maroon ribbons, and her dominating dances occur in a blood-red room, while her uncontrolled, despairing dances take place in a pale white room. White is the ultimate antithesis to her existence. The disparate natures of red and white are never so apparent as they are in a stunningly concerted tea-time-fight-dance routine.
The dance routines are splaying, grandiose things anchored to physical constants: staircases, tea tables, chairs, and above all, mirrors. Glass mirrors figure in almost every room, reflecting ever fluid, legato movement of the dancer-actors. There is one particularly startling room where two Alices face each other across a mirrorless frame—the one inhabiting the other's image to surreal effect. But the glorying theme of the production is an beautiful, irreverent eroticism. The White Rabbit is unconscionably attractive for a woodland animal, and the Alices sway seductively against the object of their dual affections. Indeed, much of the production has been simplified, during its years-long run, into an eroticized interpretation of a classic children's fantasy story, sacrilegiously so. Then She Fell is more an ode to touchingly choreographed beauty and meaningful audience participation.
The "don't speak unless spoken to" rule is easy enough to obey; stripping an audience of its inhibitions (such as talking directly to performers) is a difficult goal—one that the Then She Fell company does little to reach. This is through no fault of the performers themselves; entrusting an audience with the burden of collaboration is required of theatrical immersion. But to call upon a viewer to direct a performance is to cater to only a specific type of viewer: the extroverted, collaborative (and even brave) audience member.
But beyond such trifling observations, the actual interactions with each character are like distilled dreams. Clutching our vials of red and white drinks, we are drawn into an illusion that is designed to be an ever so slightly disturbing, but fantastically inviting one. Their questions, on the many energizing character-interactions, trespass gently on your memories. "When was the last time you dressed up for someone? Have you told someone you didn't love them when maybe you did, just a little bit?"
The last cup of tea, in the last room, at the very end of Then She Fell was accompanied by a little acrostic poem by Carroll—the first words of each line spelled "Alice Pleasance Liddell." It was like one was handed a love note to remember them and the experience by. Here's the bottom line: cancel all dinners, postpone all appointments and make room on schedules for this date with Third Rail Projects.
Then She Fell runs until March 27 at The Kingsland Ward at St. Johns (195 Maujer St. between Bushwick and Graham Aves.) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Performances are Tuesday-Sunday at 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Admittance is strictly limited to audience members 21 years of age and over; all audience members must bring valid government-issued photo IDs. The performance lasts roughly two hours without intermission. This performance is not recommended for audience members who are not comfortable standing, walking, climbing stairs or being alone. Tickets are $95-$200 and available to purchase at www.thenshefell.com. For more information, call 718-374-5196.
The Golden Bride ("Di Goldene Kale"), a joyful operetta from 1923 performed on the compact stage at the Museum of Jewish Heritage by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, is set in a small Russian village and begins with a tongue-in-cheek song about money. In Yiddish with English and Russian supertitles, the cast sings “Oi, Oi, The Dollar” when Goldele, a young woman who has been raised by another family learns that her father, who moved to America when she was a child, has died and left her a fortune. Thus begins a tale that folds real-world politics (the metamorphosing face of Russia, immigration and the pursuit of money in America) into a fairytale of love and marriage.
Goldele, buoyantly played by Rachel Policar, loves Misha, the son of the family she has grown up with. Misha is handsome and honorable. They claim their loves goes back to childhood but we can also see why she loves him: Cameron Johnson's Misha is reminiscent of a young Leonardo DiCaprio with his movie star good looks and understated seriousness. Goldele's Uncle Benjamin (played by Bob Ader), however, wants her to move to America and marry his American-born son Jerome. Expertly played by Glenn Seven Allen, Jerome is the opposite of Misha: he is square-jawed and jaunty and speaks of baseball and jazz. Jerome is not interested in Goldele anyway: after a few weeks in the Russian village, he's fallen in love with Khanele played by the wonderful Jillian Gottlieb, who is physically and vocally light as a feather.
The story has many elements of a Shakespearean comedy: a young girl grows up without her mother, but when her father dies and leaves her a fortune, she wants to find her mother. Goldele's urge to find her mother is so strong that she declares to Misha and all the other suitors in the village that she will marry anyone who can can find her mother.
In Act II, everyone comes to America including Goldele's surrogate mother, father, Khanale, and Pinchas, the village matchmaker. Bruce Rebold, wonderfully comic as Pinchas, brings out the central role of the matchmaker's role in Jewish culture (think Fiddler on the Roof and the song "Matchmaker, Matchmaker"). Pinchas hasn't lost any time once he gets to America and offers suitors to the maids who work for Goldele's uncle. They all seem promising enough, but then we learn they have a fault or two. One is rich but blind. Another is kind but missing a leg. And one is tall and handsome but works two jobs: as a window washer and as a waiter at Yonah Schimmel's, the famous knish place still standing on Houston Street.
Although Goldele doesn't need a matchmaker, she may need a shrink. Why does she offer her hand to any suitor who can find her mother when Misha is clearly the best candidate? The others: a deaf shoemaker, a roly-poly cantor, and a tailor, are bumbling and seemingly inept. They are definitely no match for the handsome and worldly Misha. But the primal draw to find her mother is understandable. Perhaps knowing our parents completes us.
Everyone quickly adapts to the rich life in America and play tennis, drink cocktails at tea time and buy new clothing. They continue to speak Yiddish once in the new country, but Goldele's (surrogate) mother, Toybe (played by Lisa Fishman) likes to try out her English. When she shows her husband, Pinchas, a new dress, she asks: “How do you like she?” His response: “You look like a delicious beef roast,” is all the funnier because it hits home the personal or familiar struggle with English as a foreign language. Then he asks: "Why are we speaking English?"
The Golden Bride touches upon some of the basic struggles that immigrants have and the question of why people leave their homeland. The reality of history looms behind the family. In 1923, when the play was written, the changing political climate after the Russian Revolution of 1917, as well as World War I (which ended in 1919), would result in poverty, famine and persecution for many. The family is aware that America is a hopeful place even to them who are lucky enough to enter into a life of wealth and ease.
Beautifully rendered sets by John Dinning are highlighted in the final act when the family gathers for a masquerade party. Finishing in true Shakespearean form, a masked stranger appears who brings news to Goldele about Misha and about her mother. But who is this man? And why does he know so much? Although we know, it’s impossible not to feel like cheering when the truth is revealed to Goldele as well.
The cast is superb and their infinite vocal talent is allowed to shine under the aegis of conductor and musical director Zalmen Mlotek with choreography and musical staging by Merete Muenter. The full-bodied singing and dancing accompanied by a live orchestra in The Golden Bride is an especially rare treat in Off-Broadway theater today.
The Golden Bride runs until Jan. 3 in the Edmond J. Safra Hall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Place between 1st Place and Little West St.) in Manhattan. Check the Museum of Jewish Heritage for the full performance schedule. For tickets, call OvationTix at 866-811-4111 or visit the website.
When the ancient Greek playwright and epic raconteur Euripides described the bacchanalian excess of the Maenads, Dionysus’ virginal followers, he leaves no doubt that it is an intoxicating affair: “With milk and wine and streams of luscious honey flows the earth, and Syrian incense smokes…” Karaoke Bacchae, Meta-Phys Ed.’s subversive production of the ancient Greek play, The Bacchae, at the New Ohio Theatre, takes intoxication to another dimension. Although supposedly written "in the style of Euripides," the play is set in the singular location of a karaoke bar on the night of the Stanley Cup final, where the avenging wine god Dionysus is to descend on his unfaithful mortal family (who refuse to worship him, understandably), incite them into drunken madness, and and force them to rip each other to pieces. Instead, we have a harmlessly roving rock 'n' roll god attempting to loosen up a strictly sober bartender, rather than your requisite tearing to pieces.
Euripides’ immortalized characters from The Bacchae have their mortal counterparts in director Jesse Freedman’s Karaoke Bacchae: a cruel, godly Dionysus is a glittering, ostentatiously pan-sexual Iggy Pop (neo-boylesque star James Tigger! Ferguson). The agnostically complex King Pentheus is transformed into a particularly uptight bar owner (Tim Craig) and the Maenads, Dionysus’ frenzied followers (Mehdya Fassi Fihri, Sheree Grate, Youn Jung Kim and Sarah Matusek), are perennially tipsy members of a college sorority. Pentheus’ courtly dissidents are Tiresias (Benoit Johnson) and King Cadmus (Don Castro); the former seems to cling to his classical self of a blind prophet, spewing serious monologues while his lordly friend Cadmus has become a lonely, mildly irritating drunk moaning into a microphone.
To call Ferguson’s performance of Iggy Pop as Dionysus overtly sexual would be to grossly understate the lewd, but nonetheless terrific power of said performance. His funnily ceremonious entrances and exits, no doubt taken from his flashy productions on the burlesque stage, take on an appropriately egomaniacal and deified importance. His utterly sober counterpart King Pentheus, played with serious frustration by Craig, chases the glittered-up god to no avail, whacking away at his once-quiet bar with a hockey stick. He tries shooing away Iggy’s Maenads, who are four recent inductees into a sorority. It’s a none-too subtle nod to the chug-happy, partying lifestyle of college Greek societies, but perhaps the only apt modern translation of the wine god’s female cult. At first, the girls are smilingly inappropriate with audience members, reclining and flirting on the laps of front row ticket-holders, but they soon turn into evil-spirited fanatics, screaming shrilly and dancing wildly, in much the same manner their ancient mythical analogues might have worshiped their god.
Scenic designer Michael Minahan has endowed the sports bar with a ping pong table, a massive screen showing the hockey final and the ubiquitous presence of red cups. A bevy of recognizable tunes stream out of loudspeakers, all karaoke favorites: the Grease soundtrack, Alicia Keys, Ike and Tina Turner, and The Clash. Cadmus holds the karaoke mic for most of the production (it is occasionally commandeered by a sorority girl) and pours his sad, drunken interpretation of The Bacchae into it. Tiresias, a barfly under the impression that he is a prophet, recites Euripides’ words over Cadmus’ voice with pointed determination. But the reverberation from the mic is more than slightly distracting, and Castro does little to subtract from the overall atmosphere of confusion.
The plot is almost non-existent; we dimly understand that Iggy Pop is trying to enlist the unsmiling bartender into his staggering, bleary-eyed ranks, that Cadmus is desperate to find a girl, and that those sorority girls are crazy, but the kind of crazy we’d like to hang out with for one night. Freedman’s aim is to give meaning to the madness of the philosophical alcoholic, and take sobriety down a peg with the unintelligible raves of sorority girls slurring their way through karaoke songs. Consequently, much of the play is babbling incoherence, borne out of Freedman’s intent to sober up his audience at the very end. And he delivers, quite astonishingly.
Ferguson steps up as Dionysus, in a shockingly unexpected last scene, revealing his divine self (in more ways than one) and decrying the seriousness with which we arrived at this play. To the ethereal tune of Prince’s "Purple Rain," Iggy Pop says, “You have got to be drunk. Always. That is everything. Just to keep from feeling the hideous weight of Time that’s breaking your back and pushing you down to your knees… you’ve gotta be drunk, non-stop.” These last scenes somewhat redeem the confused melee the audience has witnessed for the past hour and a half, but while it eases our curiosity and pushes our feel-good buttons, it doesn’t seem quite enough to save this rave of a play.
The Meta-Phys Ed. production of Karaoke Bacchae ran from July 23-25 at the New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher St., #1E between Greenwich and Washington Sts.) in Manhattan. For more information, visit www.newohiotheatre.org.
Immersive performance experiences usually toe the blurry line between smashing through the fourth wall and discomfiting the audience with its intimacy. But when onlookers can cling to the familiarity of a tried and true theme, a delightful complacency settles in, and expectations tend to plateau. In director/choreographer/creator Mary John Frank's production of Debutaunt, five Southern belles conduct their coming-of-age rituals through an “interactive dance-based experience” complete with forehead-to-floor bows and book-balancing posture exercises. But the concept behind said experience wavers somewhat on the brink of maturity, even if the white gowns and heady dance numbers sufficiently hide the brittle subject matter.
The production is held at a fancily-named warehouse—Atelier Roquette—in one of the many silent streets of Red Hook’s old factory areas. We are greeted at the door by a perennially drunk debutant (Rachel Guest) and her wearied escort (Julian Devine), and are led into the cotillion-style party, where we are handed wristbands that match us to a particular deb. As the girls practice their court bows and posture exercises under the wrathful eye of steel magnolia Martha McMillen, they strain to hold their smiles and seek to incite rebellion against her.
We harbor a half-sympathy, half-envy for the girls as they ready themselves for their debut, and their hunky escorts are welcome foils (Teddy Tedholm, something of a dance wunderkind, is the endearingly bumbling companion to Brittany Posas’ character). But they are conventional characterizations: the nerdy feminist (Melanie J. Comeau), the vapid cheerleader (Cara Seymour), the insecure overachiever (Brittany Posas), the wild drunk (Rachel Guest) and the "fat" girl (Elizabeth Dunn)—who really isn’t, by any standard, but perhaps that’s the point. Mantled mirrors show bodies that can be pinched, sucked in and held in the right places for a dress to fit, and salon tables hold every airbrushed fashion magazine that wreaked havoc on one's image perception as a teenager. In a mini performance that was deemed a fit exploration of this topic, the deb that "has" to lose her baby fat (Dunn) literally runs in circles around her proudly slim mother (Donna Fish), who is armed with a stopwatch and a whistle.
But everyone is beautiful, and so is everything. Baby chandeliers and Christmas lights cling to the ceiling, strewing a lovely soft light on the checkered ballroom floor while couples waltz through dreamy dance sequences. Frank’s discarded personality as an ex-deb gives the choreography a bittersweet ache, and is the reigning success of this immersive experience. The five debutantes whom she directs are accomplished expressive dancers, as are their respective escorts. If it weren’t for the impromptu games of beer pong and the active attempts of the performers to mingle with the audience, spectators might have found the romance of the setting a little too intimate. Perhaps our savior in this respect is the Mistress of Ceremonies, Martha McMillen (played by Catherine C. Ryan), whose twanging shrieks and honeyed insults give her a kind of Disney-villain likability.
But at some point, one cannot think past the pink lights and projections; projection designer Bart Cortright and lighting designer Joe Cantalupo have seen to such pretty distractions. On the walls behind the dance floor, screens show definitions of words like “daughter” and “princess” as short clips of girls with guns play next to it (perhaps a new subset of warrior feminists?) Costumer designer Liene Dobraja’s white, virginal gowns swish across the floor and further remind us of the hackneyed roles the girls are forced to play. It seems ironic that the dimensionless themes of the show (it doesn’t matter what’s on the outside, I’m a lady on the inside) are almost exactly replicated in the very fashioning of the production. At it’s core, Debutaunt’s substance flattens in service of unrepentant style.
The performance breaks into a rip-roaring dance party after a satisfying, if lightweight, climax. As for the audience, there is no time for sheepish introversion. Outstretched hands drag you onto the dance floor and the sheer insistence on interactivity makes for quite an enjoyable experience. You are encouraged to take pictures with the show’s official photographer and post them to social media, in the requisite nod to our ballooning digital age (which doesn’t jar with the Old South flavor of the performance at all, interestingly enough). In the end, any nuance not overworked into a feminist trope may have given more heart to the production, but it remains a sparkling, and rather gilded, ball of fun.
Debutant ran at Atelier Roquette (63 Commerce Street in Brooklyn) to June 28. For more information, visit DebutauntBall.com.
Occluded by a flashy, tourist-ridden diner on 42nd Street, the decaying splendor of the old Liberty Theater provides the perfect bootleg venue for Midnight Frolic, the third interactive show in the Speakeasy Dollhouse series by author, artist and playwright Cynthia von Buhler. The sparkling acrobatic, musical, and dance numbers stand out in this production as palimpsests of the indulgent variety shows of Florenz Ziegfeld's heyday in New York City; however, though from the beginning Midnight Frolic promises interactivity and immersion, it is far too busy being a vaudeville show to enfold audience participants into its world.
Located in one of the most congested areas of the Times Square hubbub—adjacent to Madame Tussaud's—the Liberty Theater space is truly a diamond in the rough. To escape the neon chaos of tourism by emerging into an old, luxurious theater space is a genuinely charming experience. Even jaded New Yorkers may experience a thrill when receiving their "passport" from one of the cast members and passing through a velvet curtain into the secret warmth of a New York speakeasy, romantically lit by Nick Jones. Once inside, participants are invited to explore the space: downstairs is "New York" and upstairs is "Paris." In either city, trips to the bar are highly encouraged. Ticket holders who (pay to) arrive early are taken on a special backstage tour, where one can converse with the vivacious Olive Thompson (Syrie Moscowitz) in her dressing room. While this interaction with Olive and her entourage is awkward and under-rehearsed, it affords an up close view of the production's splendid costumes, exquisitely designed by Carmela Lane down to the very last sequin.
After ample time to explore the space and visit the bar, the Follies show-within-the-show begins. These song and dance numbers, while not exactly virtuosic, gleam with easy, old-time charm. Taking a page from Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge and Great Gatsby, several of the numbers give contemporary pop songs a speakeasy spin. Standout performers in these Follies are Francine the Lucid Dream as Helen Gallagher, Erica Vlahinos as Fanny Brice, Ivory Fox as Mary Eaton.
The stage for the Follies is gorgeous, relying heavily on the existing theatrical architecture, but the crowning jewel of this production's set design is the hotel room in Paris (in which Olive dies her horrible death). Tucked up and away in the annals of the theatre, von Buhler has encased this scene within three glass walls. The glass room's voyeuristic feel doubles when an audience member realizes that, even as a watcher, she is also being watched by other viewers across the room and on the other side of the glass. The feeling is eerie and titillating, owing its conception to Sleep No More.
Where Sleep No More succeeds and Midnight Frolic falls short, however, is in its contract with the audience. One of the most essential elements to the success of an immersive, interactive show is that the rules for audience participation are very clearly laid out. This production takes a risk by leaving it up to the audience member to decide to what degree he wants to engage with the show, but this risks creating anxiety and uncertainty as to whether one is "doing it right." While it seemed appropriate to roam around and interact with the cast during the numerous and lengthy intermissions, it was not clear what to do or say. Due to poorly designed sound and chaotic staging, the plot line that runs beneath the Follies performances was hardly discernible, and characters' motivations seemed unclear. Though you are assigned a character with the passport you receive upon entry, it was not exactly clear how to use it. In one-on-one interactions, some cast members seemed more comfortable going off script, and only some had done their historical homework.
The key to enjoying Midnight Frolic is manage any expectations. Do expect vaudevillian brilliance; do not expect skillfully designed and thoughtfully executed audience immersion and interactivity. And a word to the wise: while some ticket levels entitle you to a reserved seat, not every seat in the house is a good one. Patrons who opt to have dinner before the show will probably be satisfied with the elevated view from their table, but for any audience member with a reserved seat on the floor: do not sit in the back booths. Choose a seat right up next to the stage; otherwise, your sight lines will be largely compromised by standing room audience members. Those who do not mind standing for the three-hour show will find they have the best, front and center, view in the house.
Speakeasy Dollhouse: Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic runs through May 9 at the Liberty Theater. Enter the Liberty Theater through the Liberty Diner (234 West 42nd Street). Tickets must be purchased in advance and are priced at $75 (8 p.m. entry), $150 (7:30 p.m. entry, an absinthe cocktail, reserved seats, and a tour of Olive Thomas' dressing room,) and $1000 (7:30 p.m. entry, bottle of champagne, private box seats, a tour of Olive Thomas' dressing room, and a personal greeting from Mr. Ziegfeld himself). Tickets are available by phone at 1-866-811-4111 or online at https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/943609.
Back when I was in high school, my cousin and I made up an impromptu jazz-age musical called Loser: The Musical, wherein a lowly, poor broom boy (based on a broom boy at the local Dunkin' Donuts whom my cousin and her sister insisted I had a crush on — don't ask) falls in love with a rich girl he stumbles upon one day. As one could expect, there were cheesy numbers galore, with inclusion — of course — of the musical's title theme, "Loser," which our hero would sing forlornly as the rich girl drove away with her Also-Rich-But-Also-A-Jerk fiance. Needless to say, Loser never got past my living room couch in Queens (thank God), though I do regret we never recorded any of the hilarious tunes my cousin made up off the top of her head. Such is life, as the poets say — and apparently, such is theater.
It is practically biblical testament that in theater, not one performance is ever the same night after night. Theater is ephemeral. A new show currently playing at New World Stages (340 West 50th Street) called Blank! The Musical is taking this idea to a whole new level, with the clever inclusion of an iPhone application. Yes, you read that right. In an age where everyone can personalize everything from music playlists to their social network profile pages (all hail the invention of cover photos), an app with which a different audience night after night can create their own personalized musical seems long overdue.
Created and produced by Second City and ImprovBoston alums Michael Girts, T.J. Shanoff and Mike Descoteaux (who here also serves as the show's music director and deserves a kudos-filled shout-out; you'll find out the reason why in a minute) in conjunction with Upright Citizens Brigade, Blank's conceit is simple enough: come to the show fully equipped with an iPhone and, when prompted, log onto the show's wi-fi connection with the password provided and visit the Blank! App. As the show's emcee T.J. Mannix greets you onstage (all the while charming the pants off you), you are told to follow his instructions carefully and get ready to create your own musical! With the show's spiffy app — designed by LiveCube — audience members get to choose the musical's title, its signature songs, the score's signature theme and even a dramatic piece of dialogue (this night's choice line, taken from a brave dude who shouts it out hilariously from the back of the theater: "There's nothing left for us here in this storage locker"). As a result, we are left with Is This Supposed to Smell? The Musical, about the life and times of the good people (and whales) who frequent a local car depot in Portland, Maine. By the time the actors come out and the show finally gets going ("Maine is (The Maine Thing)"), all you need do is sit back and watch your weird but wonderful creation come to life.
Here, the cast of characters of Is This Supposed to Smell? range from a couple of cabbies (Douglas Widick and Andrew Knox), who fall in love with two best girlfriends who wish to go out on the road and change their life ("Think Bigger"), to a rich May-December couple who take on the decision of having a child, only to have it backfire in ways they could never imagine ("We Were Way Off"), to the endangered whales of the Pacific Northwest whose only problem seem to be some literally stinky and painful dental work ("Ouch! My Baileen"). Tackling material that was never-before-rehearsed until this night is no doubt a difficult task, and the actors pull it off effortlessly, if by breaking out of character every once in a while to let out a chuckle or two themselves. It's perfectly ridiculous fun watching them come up with the stuff they do; Dufresne and Van Colton, in particular, are hilarious as the elder(ly?) wife recently deceased from failure to carry a child — which should be heartbreaking, if not for Van Colton's turn as the husband who somehow manages to carry a child himself (the child ends up being a weird whale-human half-breed).
Yep, it's that kind of show.
Just as with the book and lyrics, none of the music has been rehearsed, either. Descoteaux and his band (which also consists of Daniel Bennett on reeds and Al Vetere on drums, with Descoteaux himself on piano) do a fantastic job not only in keeping with the night's chosen chord structure (D/E/F/G) thematically throughout, but also in following along the each of the actors' whims, especially when Hastings goes on one of her signature let's-jam-some-extra-syllables-into-the-lyrics-because-this-is-all-totally-made-up-so-why-not riffs, garnering some extra giggles from the crowd.
For the irregular theater-goer looking for an unconventional musical to check out, Blank! The Musical is the show to see. To put it in tech-speak: it'll not only make you "LOL," but also "ROTFLYAO.".. and then some!
Blank! The Musical is running in a special limited engagement at New World Stages (340 West 50th Street) through Dec. 14. Performances are Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m; and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $29-$69 and can be purchased at Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or at www.telecharge.com. For more information, visit www.blankthemusical.com.
If there's any theater company instantly able to capture a mood and entice the senses all in the course of one evening, it is undeniably Austin McCormick's Company XIV. The company, founded by McCormick in 2006, combines the high elegance of the late-18th century with the smoky jazz cabarets of the early-20th century to make for one divinely decadent romp. I had the pleasure of reviewing their previous outing, Nutcracker Rouge last year and of that show, I wrote the following: "McCormick’s choreography and staging displays a keen understanding of (and obvious passion for) aesthetics and perfectly captures the pulchritude of performance. At every turn, there is something that catches your eye." Indeed, for their current show, Rococo Rouge — mounted at the company's new residency, XIV (428 Lafayette Street) — McCormick and company do it again, Rococo-style.
Unlike its holiday-inspired predecessor, Rococo Rouge has less of a linear narrative and more of a presentation of several acts all connected by a thematic thread: that of love and its destructive dangers. The company delves into these themes headfirst, each act featuring both classical and modern music. Some standouts include a duo of aerial artists spinning beautifully in mid-air on a lyre, as Shelly Watson (whom readers will remember as Nutcracker's Mrs. Drosselmeyer) belts out "Song to the Moon," from Antonín Dvorák Rusalka; Laura Careless (previously Marie-Claire in Nutcracker) dancing a love-torn solo, while Katrina Cunningham teases us with a rendition in the style of Yael Naim's cover version of Britney Spears' "Toxic" (pictured below right). Meanwhile, company member Davon Rainey fiercely struts — bedazzled jock-strap and all — along to the famous "Habanera" aria from Bizet's Carmen; and Ms. Cunningham graces the stage once more as both singer and performer in an enthralling performance of Beyonce's "Drunk in Love," with electric guitar accompaniment by Rob Mastrianni. What makes it enthralling is not just Cunningham's exotic voice and daring striptease, but also the showers of glitter slowly raining down on the entire stage, making its presence known quietly but just as effectively as Ms. Cunningham does herself. (The resulting effect is so stunning that the photograph above hardly does it justice.)
Indeed, just as in Nutcracker, the night's mood is not only devised by McCormick and his band of performers, but also the company's creative team. Zane Pihlstrom's sequined corsets and draped confections cut attractive lines and show skin in all the right places, each sequin and jewel perfectly reflecting the light from Jeanette Yew's design. Yew's lighting particularly shines during a duet between what are supposed to be two lovers dancing in front of a spotlight (Cailan Orn and Steven Trumon Gray in Jean Cocteau's Le Bel Indifférent), not unlike that of a camera, suggesting a voyeuristic mood. This sense of voyeurism pervades through almost every performance, as even the actors and singers seem to look on whilst someone takes center stage. While this may be the case, neither performer nor design element — or even enchanting stage trickery — take precedent over the other, and this is due to McCormick's expertise as conceiver, choreographer, sound designer and director. These elements come together and coalesce not only to create such unforgettable images, but also to immerse the audience further into the world McCormick has created. Intoxicating and heady, it's a world of danger, suspense, intrigue, wonder, delight...and desire. It's a world filled with gender-bending cyr wheel artists and captivating pole-dancers, of snapping lace fans and feathered headdresses; a serpentine underworld you're only too glad to be ensnared in.
The world of Rococo Rouge may be toxic, but the taste will have you only craving more.
Rococo Rouge runs until Nov. 2 in a limited 8-week engagement at Company XIV’s new intimate, 100-seat theater-lounge home, XIV, located at 428 Lafayette St., between Astor Place and East 4th St. in New York City. Performances are Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. The Saturday, Oct. 25 show is at 10 p.m. and there is no show on Tuesday, Oct. 28. Check the website for the latest updates and specific show times. Tickets range from $55 to $125. Visit http://CompanyXIV.com or call 212-677-1447. The show contains partial nudity — 21 and over admitted. The running time is approximately 90 minutes.