Improv & Sketch

James and Jamesy in the Dark

James and Jamesy in the Dark

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.

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Balls

Balls

Balls, an ambitious mashup of docudrama and satiric commentary, takes the Sept. 20, 1973, exhibition match between Wimbledon champs Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs as a starting point for assessing social upheavals of the past 45 years. When Riggs challenged King to the match eventually dubbed the “battle of the sexes,” she was 29 years old. Riggs had won at Wimbledon four years before she was born. They squared off in front of more than 30,000 spectators in Houston’s Astrodome as millions more watched on television. Riggs lost in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, and King walked away with the “winner take all” purse.

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The Servant of Two Masters

The Servant of Two Masters

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.

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My Name Is Gideon: I’m Probably Going to Die, Eventually

My Name Is Gideon: I’m Probably Going to Die, Eventually

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!

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Grin and Beer It!

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. xxxxx with a visual aid in The History of Beer. Top: the shows creators, xxxxx and xxxxx.

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.

Glenn and Parry show their scientific side. Photo by Alexandra Piprek.

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. 

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Comedy and Cabaret Cocktail

Audiences at the Broadway Comedy Club are in for some head-scratching and knee-slapping as the cast of On The Spot improvises and sings its way to creating a zany new musical performance every Monday night. The cast, made up of five singers, four improv actors and one pianist work together to create an entertaining, eclectic and somewhat perplexing hour and a half of comedy and cabaret.

The cabaret singers (Darby Puckett, Alyssa Beckman, Amanda Gallagher, Sydney Beck and Leigh Akin) all know the songs they’ll be performing before the start of the show. But the players (Patrick Reidy, Chris Catalano, Meg Reilly and Andrew Del Vecchio) have no clue what will come out of the singers’ mouths. Their job is to create a 10- 15-minute “scene” after each song, completely “on the spot.”

Songs during the July 27 performance ranged from Arthur Hamilton’s “Cry Me A River” to “Frank Mills” from the iconic 1960s musical Hair. Alyssa Beckman’s belting was impressive, while Sydney Beck brought a ton of personality to her performance of Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me.” Unfortunately, the resulting scenes were very hit-or-miss. Often, entire scenes passed without one reference to the song that had been sung and situations seemed to be disjointed and sloppy. 

As the night went on (each singer performed two songs) the skits began to refer back to situations, themes and jokes from previous scenes which helped to create more flow. Regrettably, to describe this as the creation of a “musical” throughout the course of the night seemed misleading. That’s not to say that there wasn’t plenty of laughter at the laid-back venue. A two-drink minimum kept people in good spirits while the acting and quick wit of Patrick Reidy (long-time New York City improv regular and On The Spot director) stood out among the cast of characters. Meg Reilly, though hilarious, seemed stuck in the same deadpan delivery of similar-sounding jokes throughout the night.  

Relaxed, relatable and sometimes raunchy, On The Spot appealed to audiences with one-liners about fingers covered in Dorito dust and Steve Harvey on Family Feud. Themes ranged from ants avoiding death-by-stomping, to children playing hockey with a baseball bat in the library, to a “secondhand poetry night.” A bright spot in the performance was pianist Andrew Whitback’s moment to shine—playing and singing Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” to the delight of the audience, who found themselves involved and clapping along.

The performance seems to regularly end with singers and players alike ad-libbing along to “Oh What A Night.” Though somewhat cheesy, it worked to wrap things up after an otherwise chaotic show. For a small-scale production with no bells and whistles in terms of costumes, lights or sets, On The Spot still succeeds in bringing laughter, charm and great vocal performances.

On The Spot currently runs every Monday at 8 p.m. at the Broadway Comedy Club (318 West 53rd Street) in Manhattan. For more information, call 212-757-2323 or visit onthespotnyc.com

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“The Ring Has Awoken…”

Sam Gamgee, in the movie Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, righteously declares that "there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo…  and it’s worth fighting for.” Good theater is also worth fighting for, and you may very well find yourself battling to get a ticket to see Fly, You Fools! Presented by Recent Cutbacks, it is currently playing Friday evenings at Peoples Improv Theater in Manhattan.

While some of Fly, You Fools! is improvisational, don’t be misled: this is a tightly woven and well-thought-out spoof of Lord of the Rings. Three actors (and a fourth who also handles sound) re-create with great hilarity and intimate reverence the story of Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin and their journey as they encounter practically every other character from the popular movie trilogy.

Nick Abeel, Kyle Schaefer and Matt Zambrano, along with Blair Busbee, in the style of the golden age of radio, refreshingly deliver Lord of the Rings with extraordinary deference to the art of great storytelling and comedy. The three barefoot actors are in a ring (it is Lord of the Rings, after all) surrounded by props.They include a long white wig (hello, Gandalf the White), an electric fan (because every movie in the franchise has lots of snow), two toy boats (they have to traverse the raging river somehow), two very long white pompoms (when wizards fight, there’s always a light show to be had), and a seemingly unending array of other household items. Each actor is dressed in black workout pants and a zippered hoodie that is brilliantly employed to create characters from hobbits to dwarves and the Elfin Prince. And then there’s Gollum, taking “my precious” to new, hilarious heights.

Busbee, as the sound and foley artist, has her own cadre of toys to create the effects and music to enhance the performance, from the crack of lightning to ethereal vocals. It’s easy to overlook her musical and timing talents amid the nonstop action and sheer unadulterated fun on stage. However, she finally, and rightfully, takes her moment in the spotlight within a male-dominated movie as she represents Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel, windswept hair and all.

This is a live-action radio show at its finest, and the audience loved every minute due to the comedic timing and expressively talented actors directed by Kristin McCarthy Parker (Hold On To Your Butts and Kapow-i GoGo.) 
 
“The Ring has awoken, it’s heard its masters call,” according to Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s films. If you enjoy the Shire and Middle-earth and have a penchant for the irreverent, you may also want to answer the call. 
 
Fly, You Fools! runs at 8 p.m. on Friday nights through May 20 at Peoples Improv Theaters,123 E 24th St. between Park and Lexington. Tickets are $20 for general admission and are available at thepit-nyc.com and at the door. For more information, visit thepit-nyc.com/fools.
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Wordless Wonder

What is the definition of HTI—Hug Transmitted Infection? Mike Spara tells you in his wordless solo sketch, "Give That Guy a Hug," one of more than 14 that constitute his show Conversations With ... Body Language. In the “Hug” sketch, Spara portrays a man who wants to give out free hugs. In the background, words on a projection screen explain that the man who is trying to give away free hugs is “totally clean and free of STDs: Sexually Transmitted Diseases, or to use the less archaic term, STIs: Sexually Transmitted Infections.” They state that the man just wants to spread love and bring peace to people across the world, while Spara assures the audience that there is no such thing as an HTI.

Spara has written and directed this wordless solo comedy as a dedication to the art of silent comedic legends Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. His show combines live sketches and pre-recorded pieces shown on a projection screen. He uses the projection like a vintage movie screen displaying title cards with dialogue but also as a prop. For example, one bit includes pre-recorded footage of a man jogging around a neighborhood and climbing fences like Spider-Man. At one point, the man stops to grab a cup of coffee. In creating the illusion that the character has jumped off the screen, Spara then jogs into the theater with the coffee in hand.

In another sketch with the title of "Interlude," singer-songwriter Sia’s music video Chandelier plays in the background as Spara proceeds to perform a two-finger puppet show. His finger puppet humorously mimics Sia’s dance moves in the video. 

Even though Spara’s characters are silent, this does not mean that they are emotionless. Spara’s hard work shows extreme dedication with his distinctive character choices and physical actions. His eyes are very expressive and his physical movements are pertinent to each of his characters.

Spara is an artist willing to push boundaries to make his characters real. This includes eating some unappetizing foods and making love to a life-size Buzz Lightyear balloon. In the sketch, "A Day in the Park," Spara portrays a dog who is exploring the park on his own. The dog brings a bag of Beggin’ Strips treats with him to the park. He finds people in the park (audience members) to feed the treats to him. Spara actually eats the dog treats. That shows the actor's true commitment to each character.

Spara certainly applies Buster Keaton's statement, “I always want the audience to out-guess me, and then I want to double-cross them” in his own comedic artistry. Each sketch is well-written, witty and unpredictable. At surface value, the various sketch plots (i.e. a conductor conducting a symphony, a boxing match, and a father and son playing baseball) appear uninteresting and simple. However, Spara makes them entertaining by using visual comedy, very specific props, and musical sound tracks that complement the action and obscure twists. 

One notable plot twist was during the sketch, "Special Delivery," where Spara’s character receives a large package via a toss by the courier instead of a hand delivery. After a strenuous struggle to open the package, Spara finds an eye patch. Although Spara's character doesn't need an eye patch, he puts it on and starts dancing flirtatiously and winking at all the ladies as disco music sets in.

Spara displays his vulnerability on stage in the versatility of each sketch character. His wordless sketch comedy embodies Charlie Chaplin's quote: “Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself.” Spara can be seen making a glorious fool of himself at the 10th annual FRIGID Festival.

Mike Spara's Conversations with Body Language's last show is Saturday, Feb. 27 at 8:50 p.m. at the Under St. Marks Theater (94 St. Marks Place between 1st Ave. and Avenue A). Tickets are $10 for adults, $7 for students/seniors and free for military, police and firefighters. For tickets, visit www.horsetrade.info.

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Tasty to a Point

The aptly named Commedia dell’Artichoke doesn’t veer far from its roots—commedia dell’arte, the knockabout comedy style of Renaissance Italy. Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters is a prime example, and although it is occasionally seen on stage nowadays, it was adapted exuberantly into the Broadway hit One Man, Two Guvnors with James Corden, who won a Tony Award for his slapstick performance.

There’s perhaps less outright slapstick and energy in Commedia dell’Artichoke, but a good deal of physical interaction in the production, directed by Devin Brain on a stage that’s part traverse, part thrust and part cabaret. The quartet of performers—Carter Gill, Alexandra Henrikson, Tommy Russell, and Shannon Marie Sullivan—are also the creators. Whether artichoke pizza was also part of the historical record is unclear, but before the performance at the intimate Gene Frankel Theatre (variously misconstrued by Henrikson's virago Capitana as the James Franco, the James Dean and the Bethany Frankel), a tasty slice is provided. Or you can choose to go with plain.

The story involves Pulcinella, an archetypal character from commedia, and his attempt to create a flourishing pizzeria business in New York. The main thrust of the plot is that the greedy Capitana is going to raise Pulcinella’s rent; Pulcinella has to wheedle some charity from her or pay up. Capitana (Henrikson) is both a capitalist and a captain of industry, as well as a boss; she is tall, dressed in a white outfit and a coral leather coat, with a white trilby (costumes are by Lisa Loen). She struts and barks about the stage, terrifying her henchman, the milquetoast Mr. Tartaglia (Russell). In a funny moment, she inserts her outsize nose into his mouth until he’s deep-throating it. Renaissance commedia was bawdy as well as physical, and the creators/performers seize every opportunity to infuse sexual license into the proceedings.

In keeping with commedia tradition, half-masks are used for the characters, and yet their attributes shine through, thanks to the actors. The show is divided into 14 lazzi, scenes that include written text which the performers embellish with improvisation. Subsidiary characters appear: Smeraldina (Sullivan), a young woman in a hat with a flower at the front (the archetype was originally a servant); two strapping working-class guys in blue overalls who make tentative overtures toward each other, which feels outside commedia; and an old peasant woman in a head scarf whom Pulcinella has hired, he says, because “I can pay her 78% of the nothing I would have to pay male.” A savvy listener might grasp fits and snatches of everything from Dark Victory to Waiting for Godot.

Typically, the commedia is topical, laden with references to well-known people (e.g., Pina Bausch, “that beautiful woman who wears a red dress and dances in that theater in Brooklyn nobody knows how to get to”) and familiar situations (the feminist Smeraldina demands of one of the men: “You gotta tell me I’m pretty, and tell me you love me, and that I look skinny in my sweatpants, and sexy even though all my underwear has period stains on ’em.”). 

That tasteless punch line is not the worst among many that would raise eyebrows in a brothel: Some salad greens are flung about to set up a particularly cringeworthy comment, and there’s a tortured set-up for another joke involving the Public Theater.

There are songs, too, that delight in nonsense and current events. Sings Smeraldina, à la “My Favorite Things”: “Springtime and puppy dogs/And coffee with cream/Cat memes and Neil deGrasse/ Tyson’s Twitter feed/These things are all things that I like yippee/Cupcakes and sparkles/And pizza with cheese.”

The multiple cooks have created a farrago of nonsense, wordplay, awkward situations, and bawdry that may approximate the Renaissance version. But Brain allows several scenes to go on too long (though, given that improvisation is essential, the blame is perhaps more the actors'). Even if it doesn’t all hang together, the audience seemed to have a roaring good time. If you appreciate scattershot, loosey-goosey comedy, then Commedia dell’Artichoke may be to your taste. Or try a slice of the plain.

Commedia dell’Artichoke plays through Feb. 6 at the Gene Frankel Theatre (24 Bond St. between Bowery and Lafayette Sts.) in Manhattan. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays and on Sunday, Jan. 24, and at 8 p.m. on Thursday-Saturday. Tickets are $30 and may be obtained by visiting www.commediadellartichoke.com.

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Murder Most Merry

The arrival of Shear Madness in New York comes 36 years after the runaway hit opened in Boston. Since then, other editions have taken up residence in other cities, and inevitably the suspicion arises that the lengthy delay bodes a show that might not meet New York’s high standards. Happily, the lunatic confection at New World Stages indicates the opposite: all those years have helped create an indestructible engine for laughter that should keep its cast bankrolled for quite some time.

Based on a 1963 play by a German avant-garde playwright, Paul Pörtner, who was enamored of commedia dell’arte, Shear Madness is a whodunit that features audience participation, improvisation, and some timeworn jokes. The hoary gags are proof that everything old is new again: burnished and flung out by a terrific cast, they shine as brightly as if they were new-minted. New York hasn’t had such polished low comedy since James Corden starred in One Man, Two Guvnors.

The barbershop of the title, vividly designed by Will Cotton, is run by the campy stylist Tony Whitcomb (Jordan Ahnquist, blessed with wide-eyed innocence), who has a yen for show music and dancing and gossip, which easily distracts him from his job. Whether the charismatic Ahnquist has all the best lines or just makes it seem that way is irrelevant. You can hardly take your eyes off him because his reactions are as much fun as his quips. But the others are close behind.

The tonsorial space is rented from Isabel Czerny, a former concert pianist who lives upstairs and suddenly gave up her career years earlier. Although isolated, she isn’t a recluse. Tony’s female co-worker, the gum-chewing Barbara DeMarco (Kate Middleton), has befriended her, and Tony has been in her apartment too.

The play opens with a dumb show, set to music, that lasts several minutes and requires close observation. Tony is finishing up a customer (Adam Gerber). He spritzes his hair. A bearded man (Jeremy Kushnier) seems to know Barbara well and is perhaps having an affair with her. Barbara drops condoms into a wastebasket. The man with the beard, Eddie Lawrence, cedes his position as the next customer to a strapping guy, Nick O’Brien (Patrick Noonan), who wants a shave. Tony is elated; he hasn’t given a shave in years, and as he settles O’Brien into his chair, he makes small talk.

“Where are you from?” Tony asks.
Nick: “I’m from out of town.”
Tony: “Whereabouts?”
Nick: “Astoria.”

That kind of topicality runs through Shear Madness, along with sight gags and slapstick. The shop is located near Ninth Avenue on 50th Street—the actual address of New World Stages. Each edition is tailored to its city so this version has references, among other things, to the Mets (Gerber has a particularly funny bit about the World Series), the Gowanus Canal, Roosevelt Hospital and Gov. Chris Christie. There are jokes about broader current events as well: Bill Cosby and Brian Williams. There are sight gags and malapropisms—“I got ESPN,” says one character, and the socialite customer Mrs. Shubert (a haughty and suspicious Lynne Wintersteller) refers to “Andrew Dice Webber.”

At one point Mrs. Shubert rebukes Tony with “You were using cursive language,” and he responds, “I was not. They don’t even teach that anymore.” It’s worth noting that those lines aren’t in the script provided, so they are probably ad-libs. The cast is incredibly skilled with making stuff up.

Midway through the first half, it’s discovered that Czerny has been murdered, and the audience is invited to reconstruct the action. Director Bruce Jordan manages the tonal shift to audience participation deftly. As the suspects are questioned, they interact with their interrogators, managing the improvisation adeptly (though many of the questions will be ones they’ve heard before). Moderating the interrogation, Noonan has the trickiest job, and he handles it with authority and humor.

But since this is a murder mystery, it would spoil things to reveal too much more. Suffice it to say that Shear Madness is a hoot.

Shear Madness is at New World Stages (340 West 50th St. between 8th and 9th Aves.) in Manhattan for an open run. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. on Monday; 8 p.m. on Wednesday-Friday; and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets range from $49.50-$79.50. For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit Telecharge.com.

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Whose Lyric Is It, Anyway?

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.  

And how! 

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

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A Lesson on Rape Culture

While circuses and clowns are amusing, rape is far from a laughing matter. In R Culture, playwright Cecilia Copeland uses the world of a circus act to invite people into a safe space to talk about our culture in relationship to rape. The show is conducted by the ringmaster played by Jennifer Harder. With the help of two clowns played by Romy Nordlinger and Rachel A. Collins, this three-women traveling circus act promises to “…dazzle you and make you uncomfortable” and sure enough they will. From bridezillas to college campuses, from strip clubs to a little girl playing with her dolls — the series of vignettes makes you question why you are laughing at these scenarios that break down and expose rape culture. At the same time, the play also makes you wonder why we are so immune to these events and images that appear in our daily lives.

The Ring Master states it best when she says that “…Our Culture IS Rape Culture!” — thus explaining the title’s double entendre: “R” relates to "our” as well as the first letter in "rape." This dark and edgy satirical play is constructed with vignettes that will make you laugh or cringe. This is due to the play containing some very crude language and jarring scenarios which are balanced with the very hilarious or serious moments. The combination of vignettes allows this three-women traveling circus act to push the entire audience into recognizing the issues in our culture and to push everyone into making social changes, or at the very least be willing to have an open discussion about it.  

One of the ways to promote the audience participation is by requesting each audience member to complete a short survey before the show begins. Remember to be honest, for the actors will use the results in the show in order to create an extra scene at the end of the performance.

In efforts to generate awareness and resources, the producers of R Culture are collaborating with organizations including Safe Horizons, Crime Victims, Treatment Center, Beth Israel Medical Center: Rape Crisis and Domestic Violence Intervention Center, and We End Violence. Representatives from these organizations will appear at facilitated discussions during designated performances.

Overall, director, producer and survivor Emily Lerer’s production of R Culture is filled with entertaining and unforgettable scenes that will cause you to think about the content of the show even after you leave the theater. Rather than another show filled with cheap laughter, R Culture ignites a necessary discussion on combating the proliferation of rape culture in society. 

R Culture runs until Nov. 23 at the IRT Theater (154 Christopher St., 3rd floor). Performances are on Fridays through Sundays at 8 p.m. with an additional performance on Thursday, Nov. 20 at 8 p.m. General admission tickets are $18 and can be purchased online at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/844961 or www.rculturetheplay.com

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Political Pandering

The cleverly titled Tail! Spin! is only tangentially related to a deadly airplane maneuver. Think of “tail” as a euphemism for sex, and “spin” as the result, and you’ll be close to the subject of the sketches satirizing four politicians whose sex scandals were once hot but now are receding from memory. "Tailspin" might be applied to what happened to their careers as a result.

The freshest is that of Anthony Weiner; he’s joined by South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, former Idaho Senator Larry Craig, and former Florida congressman Mark Foley. Rachel Dratch, the petite Saturday Night Live alumna, takes on an array of betrayed wives, as well as Barbara Walters. Mocking the hypocrisy of these men is the chief aim of playwright Mario Correa, and the dialogue is taken from the record. At the outset, a projection reads, “Honestly. This is what they actually said.”

Correa intercuts the interviews and denials, the confessions and the sanctimonious interrogations, so cleverly that it freshens the old news, while reminding us of the details that have faded. Further helpful projections by Caite Hevner Kemp advise, for instance, that Craig was in the Singing Senators, a barbershop quartet; Craig, you may remember, was arrested in a public toilet at the Minneapolis airport in 2007 for soliciting an undercover policeman for sex. Sean Dugan plays him with a faux-resonant voice as if he were trying hard to keep it in a manly register.

The crazy-quilt of dialogue yields surprising results. In an interview with Craig, NBC News’s Matt Lauer asks, “You wouldn’t view [being homosexual] as a source of great shame if you had to admit it?” Craig responds, “I’m not sure that I’ve ever looked at anyone else’s sex life as a great shame.” And immediately Correa pops in a flashback to 1998 and a speech by the bristling politico: “The American people already know Bill Clinton is a bad boy, a naughty boy. I’m going to speak out for the citizens of my state who, in the majority, think Bill Clinton is probably even a nasty, bad, naughty boy.”

The four politicians are skewered mercilessly, but Correa doesn’t stop there. From the pompous news inquisitors to the “wronged women,” everyone comes in for the drubbing they deserve.

For instance, there's Sydney Leathers, an “Indiana progressive activist” who was “poked” on Facebook by Weiner and later spoke against him. The projection displays the information that “Leathers went on to star in the porno Weiner and Me,” and Dratch, as the activist, reads it off with a smile of pride, but then checks herself, darkens her countenance, and says, “I’m disgusted by him.”

Dan Knechtes's sharp production also calls for improvisation. When Burton as Mark Foley, the closeted Florida congressman who lewdly pursued male pages on the Internet and in person, delivers a speech to the audience, he singles out one man in the front row (the night I attended, Burton’s choice was a bodybuilder). Foley lasciviously eyes the man’s thigh, asks whether he works out, and then pokes and squeezes the well-developed leg. 

In the last sketch, Tom Galantich plays a strikingly handsome, gray-haired Mark Sanford with smooth likability, making it all the more believable that South Carolinians actually reelected him even after his scandal, which involved an affair with an Argentinean woman and the ruse from his staff that Sanford, who was in Buenos Aires, was “hiking the Appalachian Trail.” Dratch plays his wife, Jenny, and, with their marriage on the rocks, the scene of Sanford wheedling her like a schoolboy to let him have an affair—“Why can’t you just give me permission?”—is bound to bring a smile. 

Indeed, smiles and grins are plentiful in this smartly conceived and skillfully played burlesque, although belly laughs are scarcer. Perhaps the hypocrisy on display is the reason. That, too, can be blamed on the politicians.

 

Tickets to Tail! Spin! range from $25–$75 and can be arranged online at www.tailspinshow.com or by calling 866-811-4111. The show plays through Nov. 30 at the Culture Project, Lynn Redgrave Theater, 45 Bleecker St. at Lafayette. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 5:30 p.m. on Sunday. Matinees are at 3 p.m. on Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays.

 

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New York Horror Stories

In their 11th year of scaring the residents and tourists of New York City, producers Timothy Haskell (creator of Nightmare) and Steve Kopelman (producer of Rob Zombie’s Great American Nightmare) have once again devised an unforgettable haunted house, with the theme Nightmare: New YorkThree knocks, and you’re in an interactive maze that lets you walk chronologically through the myths and legends of New York City—starting with those of the 1626 Lenape Native Americans up to Hurricane Sandy’s infamous roaches. 
 

The production team for Nightmare has created a spooky atmosphere that builds anxiety. A word of advice: before you walk through the doors with the graffiti words “Welcome to Hell,” watch your back in case someone escapes from the maze. And if your mouth seems a bit dry from the foreboding, you can always grab a drink at the bar (both non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages are available).   

With a different theme each year, even returning audience members won’t know what to expect once they enter the haunted house. This allows every audience member to be equally surprised and shaken inside the maze. On top of that, the actors keep everyone on their toes by jumping out of dark corners, screaming about their psychotic lives, or whispering into a random person’s ear when he or she least expects it. Depending on the scene, the talented performers may make audience members who enter the maze feel like they are the victims of a crime or bystanders who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The technical aspects of co-director Timothy Haskell and John Harlacher’s production all add to the eeriness of the house. The sets and props designed by art director Justin Haskell help transport the audience to a specific era in the Big Apple, whether it’s an early 20th-century hospital room with Typhoid Mary or a 1980’s subway car. Garin Marshall’s lighting, which may hide actors in corners or flicker in order to create surprise entrances, adds to the weirdness. AnDavid Roy’s sound design contributes to the mood and helps there be no dull moments as you walk through the maze. But don’t forget, a haunted house is not complete without some special effects that jump out at you and make the most common object into something that might give you nightmares. 
 
Overall, this experience is meant for audiences who want to be scared or want go to a spine-tingling event around Halloween. It does help if you know the history of New York City in order to recognize the rooms and the people who wander through this house, but understandably, no list of what to expect can be handed out, or else the mystery would be ruined.
 
On that note, there’ll be no more details about this production in order to leave its secrecy intact—so I can’t tell you that there might be rats, or maybe an alligator, or that you might be separated from the group at some point. But here are a couple more pointers:
 
First, don’t walk to the bathroom alone (potentially a bad idea).
 
Second, ask to get a bloody X drawn on your forehead for an extra-creepy experience—I dare you.
 

Nightmare: New York is playing through Nov. 1 at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center (107 Suffolk St. between Rivington and Delancey). For show dates and times, and to purchase tickets, visit the website at nightmarenyc.com.

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Spark of Life

Now celebrating its fifth season, Redd Tale Theatre Company launches its “Summer of Creation” with two one-act plays that share a common theme. Pairing the enduring and immortal tale of Frankenstein with an original science fiction drama called Gabriel results in a fascinating juxtaposition for theatergoers.

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What Do Homosexuals Do With Each Other?

Sex*But is a staged reading running every Sunday night at the Belt Theater. Director Erik Sniedze has assembled a talented cast of men

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