If you think a mega-famous pop star like Beyoncé and an ancient Egyptian queen like Cleopatra have nothing in common, think again. They are both worshipped religiously by their followers, both have expensive taste in clothes and jewelry, and both have a penchant for dating famous bad boys. Or at least those are the parallels teased out by the new immersive pop musical Cleopatra, now playing at the Chelsea Music Hall venue. In this production, historical accuracy goes out the window in favor of flashy dance numbers, sultry love ballads, and audience involvement. Cleopatra is equal parts drag show, pop concert, and Broadway musical, and, though it has some rough edges, it is surely a good time.
During the Holocaust, the atrocities of the Nazi regime forced countless Jewish families and individuals into hiding. Though they were not interned in concentration camps, these stowaways were subjected to another, silent, reign of terror—in which every creak and cough could result in discovery, detainment, and almost certain death. Thus, the scene is set for The Hidden Ones, an immersive theater production that brings audiences into the secret hiding place of two families at the end of World War II. Even though the experience lasts just a little over an hour and plays out within the confines of a small room, The Hidden Ones is artistic proof that less is often more—especially in immersive theater.
Gloria: A Life, by Tony-nominated Emily Mann, captures Gloria Steinem’s ascent from a young journalist relegated to “women’s interest” stories to an icon of the feminist movement. Active in promoting women’s rights from the 1970s on, she is famous for saying, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” The play is performed in two acts: the first act is the story of Steinem’s life, and the second is a “talking circle,” in which the audience is invited to carry on a conversation about the themes of the play.
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.
An asteroid collides with Earth in just over an hour. You are at an apartment party in New York City with eight people whom you know from various stages of your life. What do you discuss with them? What is going through your mind? Do you have any regrets? These are the large, existential questions brought forth by Part Two of Live In Theatre’s This Is When We Rest, an apocalyptic theater experience designed by Leland Masek that combines Live Action Role Play (LARP) gaming and participatory theater.
James and Jamesy in the Dark is an extraordinary piece of theater that fits no mold but its own. It draws on many sources—or pays homage to them—but it is a unique, thought-provoking delight. Two gifted physical performers (in whiteface and dressed top-to-toe in gray outfits, including gloves) embody the title characters. Eventually, the audience comes to recognize the taller one as Aaron Malkin’s more phlegmatic James and the shorter, more emotionally fragile one as Alastair Knowles’s Jamesy.
The Schaubühne Berlin production of Returning to Reims addresses fascinating material—the evolution of French political life in the 20th century, notably a working class that was heavily communist in the 1920s to one that increasingly embraces the right-wing National Front of Marine Le Pen. U.S. dramatists rarely tackle political subjects of such depth, but the static execution of Thomas Ostermaier’s production undercuts much of the daring of that choice.
Robert O’Hara’s new play, Mankind, opens with a gay couple’s strained pillow talk, as one man, Jason (Bobby Moreno), advises his partner, Mark (Anson Mount), that he is pregnant—by Mark. From that simple start O’Hara spins a broad, futuristic satire of sexuality, feminism, religion, commerce and talk shows. It’s more than the playwright is able to manage smoothly, and much of it feels familiar, but it has its moments before it arrives at its circular ending, one reminiscent of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s Twentieth Century.
Since 2009, Live In Theater has reimagined the murder mystery genre by staging historic events within various nontraditional theatre spaces throughout New York City. The group specializes in interactive, true crime stories, putting some audience members at the center of the action. In The Trial of Typhoid Mary 1915, viewers are faced with the case of Mary Mallon, a domestic cook for affluent New York families during the early 1900s. As a silent carrier of the contagious bacteria that causes typhoid fever, Mallon infected more than 50 New Yorkers, resulting in at least three deaths. However, while Mallon was certainly not the only carrier of the disease, her status as an immigrant woman may have disadvantaged her in the justice system. It is up to the audience to decide whether Typhoid Mary should remain in quarantine for the rest of her natural life or be set free.
Ars Nova’s KPOP begins with a chorus of glittering young Korean pop performers belting the lyrics “the future’s standing right in front of you.” Indeed, the purported mission of the play’s fictional management enterprise, JTM Entertainment, is to bring K-Pop to American audiences, and the production delivers K-Pop-styled numbers in droves.
Endangered: The Musical, by Keni Fine and Tony Small, is like The Wizard of Oz meets Hairspray. It’s about a young boy’s journey, and it has a social message. The story centers on Levi Lovewell (Theo Errig), a young, aspiring journalist whose parents shelter him. But, during a trip to the zoo, his curiosity gets the better of him and he breaks away from them.
The ambitious Foundry Theatre has chosen an ideal location for its production of W. David Hancock’s two-character drama Master. The design of Brooklyn’s Irondale Center, a former worship and religious-education space in the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church (a gem of 19th-century architecture), strains heavenward with worn ecclesiastical grandeur. It’s an environment likely to put arriving spectators in a reflective mood appropriate for playing their parts as tacit mourners in an immersive performance piece that depicts a memorial service and gallery retrospective honoring James Leroy Clemens.
The Instigators’ adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, directed by Lillian Meredith, uses immersive elements to enhance and punctuate both large and small moments. Actors break the fourth wall, and the staging brings actors in line with the audience.
The “whites only” and “colored only” entrances to the immersive portion of 3/Fifths at 3LD Art & Technology Center in lower Manhattan are visible not only to wary ticket-holders, but to everyday pedestrians who happen to pass by the glass façade. Indeed, 3/Fifths holds a funhouse mirror to systemic racism in America by uniting the reality of everyday injustice with immersive theatrical experience.
Target Margin Theater’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra signals its nonconformist nature by having its audience to gather outside the Abrons Art Center, packed together like rush-hour travelers. The production, which is part promenade, rejects the usual, classical interpretation of O’Neill’s trilogy, which has often proved difficult to pull off. But director David Herskovits, in his progressively exhilarating realization of Mourning Becomes Electra, comes close to throwing off the curse.
The project of Connecticut-based Bated Breath Theatre Company is to devise theatrical productions in partnership with museums. For its Off-Broadway debut, the troupe has collaborated with the New Britain Museum of American Art to create Beneath the Gavel, which offers a mêlée of perspectives on the visual art world: the fast-paced realm of auctions, the struggle of young artists to make a living, and the larger picture of art history and its various historical movements. While each one of these approaches to the art world would makes for an interesting and meaty show, Beneath the Gavel tries to treat them all, and suffers because of it.
“Remember that one Thanksgiving when your nearest and dearest sat down for a quiet game of Monopoly, but then your grandma got drunk and revealed a rich tradition of inbreeding? Well, tonight should be something like that…except with a lot more vodka.”
Every now and then a theatrical experience comes around that breaks the mold. It’s no simple task to categorize Gideon Irving’s performance piece running at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Part musical, part stand-up comedy, (very small) part magic act, and part intriguing night in a complete stranger’s living room, My Name Is Gideon: I’m Probably Going to Die, Eventually is far from a one-trick pony. On the contrary, the hour-and-45-minute show is constantly surprising audience members with laughs, gasps, songs and even snacks!
Can a trial change history? What happens when standards of behavior are violated and not brought to public reckoning? The Trial of an American President is a courtroom drama of a trial that will never take place, of legal arguments that will not be made, and finally, of a verdict that will also not happen, except perhaps in the court of public opinion, if the writer has his way In his new and first play, Dick Tarlow (with contributing writer and researcher Bill Smith) puts George W. Bush, our 43rd President, on trial for knowingly violating international law: when invading Iraq in the hunt for non-existent weapons of mass destruction; for the unnecessary killing of civilians in an occupation; and for the use of torture.
Directed by Stephen Eich, this fictional trial takes place in the International Criminal Court of the Hague. Because the United States, unlike 124 other countries, is not a party to the ICC, our actions cannot be prosecuted except if called for by the UN Security Council, where the United States has veto power. George W. Bush appears at his trial voluntarily and against the advice of family and friends. In a gray suit, red tie, and blue shirt, Tony Carlin plays an earnest former President who is convinced of his righteousness but not arrogant or prideful, a Bush who listens empathically and with humility to an American mother who has lost her son and to the stories of torture and of the unprovoked massacre of Iraqis by American troops. Brilliant use of video, allowing for footage of the conflict and for individual Iraqis to tell their stories, also humanizes the destruction wrought by decisions made by Bush, in all his rumpled sincerity, with Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney at his side.
The play is documentary in style, grounded in historical evidence, legal argument, and reference to international treaties and conventions. Tall and stately in his black robes with blue trim, Michael Rogers, as the Prosecutor, is imposing. Mahira Kakkar, playing the Narrator, gives the audience context and spells out the larger implications of the American invasion of Iraq: turmoil across the Middle East, the shift of regional power in favor of Iran, the rise of Isis, and the creation of the largest refugee crisis since World War II, one that now threatens European states and the European Union itself.
Although the verdict, left up to the audience, is pretty much a foregone conclusion, it is the detail that is finally so impressive: the playing out of a war that that follows from Bush officials, a number of whom are quoted: “Bomb Iraq…. There aren’t any good targets in Afghanistan,” and “If you don’t violate some human rights, you probably aren’t doing your job.” Or, the White House counsel who ruled that war against terrorism renders obsolete any of the Geneva conventions about questioning enemy prisoners.
From those statements come the falsifications that accompanied the American invasion in the first place and the occupation of Fallujah, with a cutoff of food, water and medical supplies to civilians and painful examples of unprovoked shootings by American troops into schools and homes in striking defiance of military advice to rely upon surgical strikes and not upon an occupation. And there is Bush’s approval of extraordinary rendition and six new interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, often administered with dubious and little evidence. Matters are complicated when the Narrator asks members of the audience if they would violate laws on torture if they thought the information would save their child. “I would,” she says.
Some might say The Trial of an American President is a beautifully dramatized trial and not theater at all. At the play’s end, the viewer will ponder the consequences of our votes as well as the actions of our leaders on the wide canvas they deserve. If those actions inspire fear and pity, as Aristotle recommended in the writing of tragedy, the tragedy here is not the gouged-out eyes of an Oedipus but rather entire regions of the world upturned, lives decimated, and chaos that threatens the world order and has energized forces of intolerance. And the “recognition” Aristotle recommends to the tragedian, is not that of our protagonist, George W. Bush—who, at the end of the play, remains deeply convinced of the rightness of his decisions—but ours.
The Trial of an American President is at the Lion Theater, 412 West 42nd, through Oct. 15.
A Brief History of Beer begins, quite appropriately, by inviting the audience to drink beer. This is not an average toast, however, as the audience is encouraged to really taste the beer—exploring its effervescence, hoppiness, and temperature. Thus begins William Glenn and Trish Parry’s wacky journey through time and space to simultaneously delve into the origins of beer and save it from some unspecified nefarious threat. Despite the plot’s silliness, Glenn and Parry are charming to watch under Jeffrey Mayhew’s direction as they wholeheartedly commit to the ridiculousness of their show.
A Brief History of Beer’s irreverence towards formal plot structure and performance style is made clear from the top of the show. Design-wise, the show leans heavily on a random assortment of projected images and videos, creating effects such as Glenn and Parry’s “spaceship,” lyrics to sing-alongs, and video footage of Glenn and Parry being silly. The performers don Star Trek–inspired outfits, inviting us to join them on their spaceship to explore the history of beer. Glenn and Parry also indicate that some evil forces are threatening the existence of beer, though the identity of those forces remain undefined. They acknowledge this plot inconsistency, establishing an atmosphere of self-referential absurdity. They are also unafraid to acknowledge technical malfunctions (of which there were several), as well as latecomers joining the show at random. Mayhew’s direction allows Glenn and Parry to work the room like comics, and, despite the chaos of this makeshift aesthetic, they manage to pull the whole thing off.
Having enjoyed a two-year run at Under St. Marks, A Brief History of Beer has become an East Village (and Off-Off-Broadway) mainstay. One thing that A Brief History of Beer does extremely well is facilitate audience participation. Many audiences balk at the idea of participatory theater, but by harnessing the jovial qualities of beer, Mayhew, Glenn, and Parry make audience participation fun (and not scary or intimidating in the slightest). This is refreshing in comparison with more confrontational, experimental productions that aim to discomfort the audience rather than welcome them into to the fold. Goofiness is key in the participatory moments of A Brief History of Beer: we are instructed to wave our arms wildly every time Glenn and Parry’s spaceship takes off, intermittently invited to sing drinking songs, and even welcomed on stage to play along in some old school drinking games.
Despite its title, A Brief History of Beer does not contain a great deal of intelligible information on the origin and evolution of beer. The journey begins in Mesopotamia and makes a quick pit stop in medieval Europe; but overall, a coherent historical narrative fails to take shape amid the show’s interactive moments and comic bits. In fact, the more compelling tidbits of trivia are found in the show’s contemporary references. One evolving skit entitled “This Month in Beer” (akin to Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” news parody) hilariously sums up the different beer-related events of the world from the past month. Another charming video sequence follows Glenn and Parry on a real-life past visit to Oktoberfest, where they interacted with various drunkards and, of course, drank a boatload of beer.
In any case, it is best to attend A Brief History of Beer with the goal of meeting a few new drinking buddies (rather than obtaining some deeper understanding of the origins of beer-making). The type of communal drinking that this show encourages is a fantastic alternative to drinking at home or in a regular bar, so if beer-drinking is one of your favorite weekend pastimes, you should definitely give this quirky show a try.
A Brief History of Beer is performed at Under St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place between First Avenue and Avenue A) various Saturdays of the month (except March 2017) at 10:30 p.m. A schedule and tickets ($12) are available online at www.horsetrade.info or by calling (888) 596-1027.