Dance

Scandalicious!

What do you get when you put together political scandal cover-ups, a villain who plots through songs, extremely flexible chorus boys, a family secret and a musical within a musical? Propaganda! The Musical. An official selection of the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), which ended July 27th, Propaganda! is one of 24 original new musicals showcased throughout NYMF's month-long run. The musical itself centers around a young man called Rookie, who takes over his grandfather's super-secret government bureau — with much hesitation — after Grandpa not-so-mysteriously dies from a cup of Starbucks coffee poisoned by his number two at the bureau, Agent X.

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Steiningly Abstract

The group Theater Plastique had a hit at last year’s New York International Fringe Festival with its inaugural production, Gertrude Stein Saints! The show has now returned for a longer run at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side, and it’s a compelling, if unusual, piece of theater. Neither play nor opera — as Four Saints in Three Acts, Stein’s original work was, with a score by Virgil Thomson — Gertrude Stein Saints! is more a song cycle. Beyond that, it’s a calling card for the invention and musicianship of an unusually talented group of young performers.

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A Doll's House

Nothing is stronger than a mother's love. This idea is explored and challenged in Charlotte's Song, an abstract performative piece conceived and choreographed by Nancy Ferragallo and co-directed by Andreas Robertz and Mario Golden. The piece tells the story of a mother and daughter's inextricably-linked fate as it is played out in the presence of a doll. Throughout the play, we learn of the mother's descent into psychological turmoil and its effects on her daughter. Over the years, Hannah and her daughter, Charlotte (played by Mario Golden and Yvette Quintero, respectively) keep in touch through letters, all of which are read aloud as a separate, lone figure steps out of the shadows. 

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Expect the Unexpected

Choreographed by Jody Oberfelder, 4Chambers would be best described as a visual and physical sense of the heart's importance. The core of the performance piece centers around the beating heart — specifically its function, its literal purpose and its emotional capabilities. 4Chambers is both literally and figuratively a piece that will move the audience to feel things in more ways than one.

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Disoriented in Wonderland

Only 15 spectators are admitted to each performance of Then She Fell, a site-specific work by the innovative theater company Third Rail Projects, currently playing in an old school building on Maujer Street in Williamsburg. (The show had a previous run in the former Greenpoint Hospital in North Brooklyn.) In order to accommodate such small audiences, Third Rail offers 12 performances a week, with revolving casts drawn from a roster of 30 performers.

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Nutcracker Meets Erotica

Entering the Minetta Lane Theatre last Saturday night for Nutcracker Rouge, I was not quite sure what to expect. I first heard of Company XIV just two years ago and soon became familiar with their growing reputation for borrowing from multiple performative traditions and taking them to another level. The company, brainchild of art director/choreographer/founder Austin McCormick, is an acclaimed multidisciplinary troupe whose unique blend of jazz, opera, vaudeville, burlesque and old-time theatrics have been shaking up the theater scene since its founding in 2006. 

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Love and Other Drugs

According to the old adage, “love is blind” – so goes the premise behind Shakespeare’s classic play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Titan Theatre Company’s production expands this idea with the concept of a sort of “blind” casting – that is, having eight of the nine actors’ roles chosen for them by the audience before every performance. Through this method, the notion of love as something that does not discriminate is quite literally put on display and brought to the forefront in ways possibly never before seen with the play. The results, with the company’s talented cast, is a romantic comedy like no other.

For the uninitiated, A Midsummer Night’s Dream tells the tale of a group of young lovers, a pair of which – Theseus, duke of Athens and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons – are about to embark on their upcoming nuptials.  The rest of the lovers find themselves in a love triangle (or perhaps, a love square), as Demetrius pines for Hermia, who is betrothed to Lysander, while Helena yearns for Demetrius’ affections herself. In the midst of all this, a play is scheduled for the wedding celebrations by a group of simpletons: Quince, a carpenter; Flute, a bellows-mender; Snout, a tinker; Snug, a joiner; and Bottom, a weaver. Rounding out this eccentric cast of characters are the creatures of the wooded forests in which much of the action takes place: Puck (also called Robin Goodfellow), a mischievous hobgoblin; his master of sorts, Oberon, king of the fairies; his queen, Titania; and her attendant, Peaseblossom.

It is through Oberon and Titania’s quarrel over the possession of an orphan boy that the plot thickens, as the Fairy King orders Puck to use a flower with magical properties in order to make Titania fall in love with a beast, so as to pluck the orphan from her ownership while she’s in her daze. The two conspirers also happen to witness Helena pursuing Demetrius in the woods, and Oberon orders Puck to cast Demetrius under the spell of the charmed flower. However, while the task of distracting Titania is successfully done (as she falls for Bottom, turned into a donkey after the group’s rehearsal in the woods), Oberon discovers that Puck has mistakenly made Lysander, not Demetrius, fall in love with Helena. So ensues madness of comedic proportions.

Shakespearean actors are often lauded not only for their ability to decipher and interpret the Bard’s language, but also for their sheer ability alone. They are often classically trained, and as such are able to embody these characters and present them to a modern audience with ease and grace. The cast of this production is no exception – in fact, they far exceed all the usual qualities of a Shakespearean actor, given the task thrown at them. The unique casting process challenges each of the eight actors (the character of Puck is always played by the same actor; in this case, by Matthew Foster) to memorize all 16 roles in the play.

While confusing at first, as some of the female roles were played by men and vice versa, switching things up with the casting only helped to further heighten the comedy and eventually made for a great night at the theater. Each actor was given a track of double roles, and each one was astounding in their grasp of each character. Jonathan Matthew Finnegan was wonderfully flamboyant and ever as the scorned lover of Helena (he also played fairy Peaseblossom), while Sean Hudock was adorable in his roles as the romantic Hermia and shy, cowardly Snug.  Though perfectly capable as Lysander, it was Lloyd Mulvey’s take on Flute that garnered much laughter, particularly during the “Pyramus and Thisbe” scene. One of the production’s taglines was: Who’s your bottom tonight? – and this night’s Bottom, played by Emily Trask, was the highlight of the evening, as she managed not only to make the audience cry with laughter, but also induce chuckles from her fellow cast mates. 

The casting process also gave way to an interesting reinterpretation of the costumes. As no one knew beforehand which roles they were to play, the cast was first introduced to us wearing “uniforms” of white dress shirts and black slacks. Once cast in their roles for the night, their individual costumes were adjusted, with the women wearing skirts and sashes, and the men wearing sweaters and blazers over their outfits. For the lovers, costume designer Scott Frost had each pair wearing corresponding colors, a clever way for the audience to figure out whose true love belongs to whom. 

As for the set design, the production went for a minimal yet elegant set befitting a fantastical play such as this, featuring a simple stone-like platform, replete with bits of shrubbery. Alan Pietrowicz’s lighting, most of which consisted of a neon-colored fixture along the back wall (which would change color depending on the scene), as well as overhead lighting, which would dim in order to signify the transition from day into night and therefore setting the tone for the lovers’ trysts in the forest.

The Titan Theatre Company’s rendition of A Midsummer Night's Dream is one that will leave you entranced and thoroughly entertained. With a clever reimagining and talented cast, this is one dream you won’t want to wake up from.  

A Midsummer Night's Dream is playing at The Secret Theatre (4402 23rd Street in Long Island City) until November 3, 2013.  

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Seeing is Believing

For centuries, the macabre has found its way into the canon of theatrical performance, capturing the imaginations of audiences around the world. From Shakespeare’s original Macbeth to Punchdrunk’s current site-specific production based on the Scottish play, Sleep No More — the thrill of the dark unknown is still being sought by audiences today. Such is the case with Xoregos Performing Company’s Danse Macabre, which made its premiere at Theater for the New City earlier this month. Danse Macabre owes much of itself to the traditions of “Grand Guignol,” a term for the graphic horror style of theater that first found its footing at Paris’ Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol during the late 1890s. This style often contains stories with themes of amorality, and often alternated the gory scenes with humorous skits and musical vaudevilles. Danse Macabre certainly succeeds in translating these elements into our modern times. It never aspires to reach the shock-horror scale that so many films of the genre resort to, but instead takes its time as each scene unfolds, until it finally creeps up on you. 

The show opens with a series of skits written by various playwrights: a collection of scenes that at first seem ordinary, but soon start veering toward the dark and disturbing. With the company playing multiple roles, this was never more evident than in the show’s latter two skits, “Daddy’s Boy” by Pamela Scott and “The Bender” by Jack Feldstein. In “Daddy’s Boy,” a recently-divorced detective (Nick Giedris) tries to convince his young son to “play a trick” on his ex-wife by pretending to shoot her. The son (Trevor DeVone), the “Daddy’s Boy” in question, goes back and forth between hesitation at the request and desire to please his father. In the end, he eventually decides against it — or does he? In “The Bender,” a young girl (Janice Amano) stumbles drunkenly out into a darkened street and into her friend standing on the curb (Nicolas Cerkez).  She starts what ends up being a mostly one-ended conversation, even flirting with him. All the while, he looks around cautiously, as if to make sure no one else is around, before reaching into his coat pocket and…

Well, you get the idea. Both scenes are quietly creepy, making you look over your shoulder and think twice about talking up that cute stranger on the train ride home. However, while this is all part-and-parcel of what the show intends, not all of it will leave you with the goosebumps. Much of Danse Macabre also has its moments of comedic relief — most of which could be found in the other three skits — “Out of Bounds” by Dylan Guy, “Zandar the Magnificent” by Joel Trinidad and “Among My Souvenirs” by Dave DeChristopher. 

“Out of Bounds,” starts off rather tame as we meet Wally (Sam Eckmann) and Crunch (Cerkez), two friends just conversing over a beer. The conversation seems to start off innocently enough — with the two sharing a quick-witted exchange not unlike the kind heard in old films of the 1950s — until Wally starts telling Crunch about a dead mouse he’s been keeping in a box. Or, at least it looked dead when Crunch opened it. In “Zandar the Magnificent,” a send-up on those phony crystal ball prophets (with Giedris as the eponymous seer), a woman named Jo (Pamela Stewart Ehn) asks him to foresee her fate, only for a freak accident to occur, causing the once-phony to suddenly acquire “the gift.” 

Last but certainly not the least, “Among My Souvenirs” is perhaps the funniest of the three, if unexpectedly so. In the scene, a young working stint named Caryn (Natalie Margiotta) finds her apartment infested with mice. After exterminating them, she is stuck with figuring out what to do with their dead remains, until she suddenly remembers everyone she seeks revenge on. With Margiotta narrating, she is helped by the other members of the company in reenacting her demented revenge spree, inciting much laughter from the audience.

As the series of skits ends, there is a two-minute pause before the title dance piece starts. It is a dreamlike sequence, with a young girl in a nightgown surrounded by ghoulish figures and eventually being led away by a mysterious man in a cape. The dancing, choreographed by director Shela Xoregos after the original work of historian-choreographer Angene Feves, is simple in its movement and feels more like watching a mini-play in the vein of The Red Shoes take place. It is here where Raiza Peña’s costumes really shine, especially with the ghouls; she uses the familiar sight of figures under sheets, an idea which seems juvenile and trite, but here looks and feels just as creepy as their movements.

All in all, Danse Macabre is an experience to, well, experience! With minimalistic sets by Lisa Barnstone and beautiful lighting by Don Cate, the show feels like an old vaudevillian set, but with a Twilight Zone-like twist. Full of plot twists and cliff hangers, played to spine-chilling perfection by the company, Danse Macabre will leave you simultaneously laughing and squirming in your seat.  

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Sliding Down the Pole

If you're wondering what to see at this year's Fringe Festival, you won’t go wrong if you head to Valerie Hager’s autobiographical, solo show, Naked in Alaska. It chronicles the joys, frustrations and heart break Hager experienced in her 10-year career as a stripper which took her from Tijuana all the way to Fairbanks, Alaska.

So it’s just another stripper confession story, chock full of cliches and stereotypes?

Hardly!

Over the last few years, the stripper memoir has become an American cultural phenomenon. Booty-shaking, pole-climbing, tell-alls, such as Diablo Cody’s Candy Girl, Ruth Fowler’s Girl, Undressed and Lacy Lane’s Confessions of a Stripper were runaway best-sellers which spawned numerous imitations. It’s a genre ridden with cliches and one of the most persistent (and annoying) is the female protagonist who comes from a educated, middle-class background and is the “last person you would ever expect to be stripping." (Cody says, “I had spent my entire life choking on normalcy, decency and Jif sandwiches…for me stripping was an unusual kind of escape.”)

Stripping may have been an escape for Hager, but it was hardly an escape from normalcy, decency or peanut butter sandwiches. Rather, hers was an escape from a harrowing adolescence. Describing her young, troubled self, Hager says “I was this young girl who was a secret bulimic for over a decade, who became a crystal meth addict and was expelled from high school.”

It’s that kind of unadorned honesty and humility that makes the show so compelling.

Early in the show, Hager and her impressive director Scott Wesley Slavin demolish the “Last Girl in the World" cliche and use the show’s multimedia format to great effect. The play opens with Hager shooting up crystal meth, while a montage of childhood photos rapidly flashes on a projection screen. It was an exciting and promising opening to a show which didn’t fail to deliver. 

As it should have been, Venue #5 at the Lower East Side’s Theater of Whimsy was tightly packed with exuberant and slightly tipsy theater lovers. Throughout the evening, Hager’s energy, honesty and humor kept the crowd rollicking with laughter and applauding her seductive pole dancing. She has talent, guts, charisma, a taut petite frame and a treasure trove of distinct mannerisms, voices and impersonations. Over the course of the show, she plays a dozen characters, and plays them well. (Charlie, a stooped-back, foul-mouthed, African-American stripper, was a particular crowd favorite.)

“It’s a show dedicated to the outcast, the forgotten,” Hager says. “I wrote Naked in Alaska for any of us who have ever felt different and or on the fringe.” While the show may be dedicated to outcasts and other marginal figures, Hager’s search for something to belong to, her own “tribe,” is something that many, if not all us, can relate to. 

So get down to the Theatre of Whimsy (aka the C.O.W.), grab a few drinks at the lobby bar, and catch Naked in Alaska before it moves on to Chicago’s Fringe Festival at the end of the month. Because as one audience member said after the show, “I am so glad I came. So glad.”

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What a Piece of Work is Hamlet

In the Drilling Company’s Hamlet, staged as their Shakespeare in the Park(ing) Lot offering this summer, there is great drama being presented. Not only are there the conflicts between Hamlet and the rest of the Danish court, but there is also the real world drama of the conflict between an actor’s voice and a car rushing by or a helicopter overhead. Watching this play from the comfort of a lawn chair in a municipal parking lot on the Lower East Side is a unique experience, to be sure. For those looking for a definitive production of the Bard’s text, this is probably not the production to see. It is at times difficult to understand (both to hear and to follow) and there are many odd choices made here. If, however, what you are after is an opportunity to experience the play and to enjoy the New York City summer night, then this production is well worth your time. It is very pleasurable to be confronted with Shakespeare as you watch the city move by around you. The classic revenge drama is staged in such a manner as to cleverly incorporate its parking lot surroundings. A street lamp is placed in the center of the action, both to illuminate the stage action once the sun has set and as a platform on which the actors may climb. The brief moment in which an actor takes advantage of this lamppost is one of the highlights of the production. In a piece with such a special setting, it is hard not to wish that director Hamilton Clancy had incorporated the surrounding environment more. What would it mean if Hamlet were taking place in a literal parking lot? What might that setting do to the meaning of the plot(s) unfolding?

Instead of attempting to answer these questions, the company seems to be using their locale as a forum for presenting Shakespeare at no cost to whoever wishes to stop by and hear it, which in and of itself is a very noble cause. Hamlet is one of the greatest plays in the English language and for those who may have no other chance to hear it performed live, this production is entirely worth taking advantage of. There is real heart in what the performers do here; it is clear that much effort has been put into this production and the actors perform the lengthy play with much zeal and zest.

There are many alterations to the text that are hard to justify. For instance, instead of opening the play with guards on watch, the play opens with a famous speech by Hamlet. By having the play start with Hamlet, the director is entirely reframing the context of the action. Although this is an acceptable choice–and similar to what many other contemporary directors have done with the play–these cuts and rearrangements detract from the overall impact of the play’s meaning. Rather than being a larger rumination on certain human issues, this production seemed much more concerned with the unfolding of the basic revenge plot.

In addition, many production choices are distracting. It is hard to place whether this production is meant to be a contemporary rendering of the play or a period piece; some actors wear what appears to be mid-twentieth century apparel while others are more casually attired in modern dress. There are also many unnecessary props on stage. Yet, at moments in which a prop would be useful, an actor would mime an object.

That being said, the stage design is fine overall, and the configuration of benches and sheet that create the grave is ingenious. The actors utilize the space well, making an effort to be seen on all sides of the audience. Unfortunately, I found the performers were often quite difficult to hear over the ambient noise of the city surrounding them. Some actors chose to shout over the sounds; this often took away from the larger impact of their performances. Hamlet, for example, played by Alessandro Colla, often seemed angry, as there was extensive effort put into projecting the voice above the din of city life. That being said, the Hamlet that he created was overall interesting to watch and sympathetic. The supporting cast, too, gave a laudable presentation of these oft-performed lines.

All in all, the joy of watching Shakespeare come to life in the unlikely location of a pay-to-park lot off of Delancey Street outweighs any possible flaws with this production. Witnessing this performance in this unlikely locale is a special occurrence and one worth taking advantage of before the transformative magic of the theater vanishes and the city goes back to its regularly scheduled business.

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The Gospel According to Busch

Charles Busch’s latest work of rarefied lunacy takes comic aim at Hollywood’s depiction of nuns. The set of St. Veronica’s, cheaply yet inventively designed by B.T. Whitehill, looks like a shoestring high school effort, with sponges standing in for bricks on the pillars of the front gates, and stained-glass windows depicting steaks being grilled and a garden watered. But it’s meant to be a run-down parish—think of The Bells of St. Mary’s. No matter: the action of this canny satire belies its shabby look. It is sublime nonsense whose pleasures outweigh those of many bigger-budget productions. Busch, an expert on Hollywood melodrama (he’s provided authoritative commentary for Warner Brothers DVDs of The Bad Seed and Dead Ringer), slips in references to The Sound of Music, The Trouble with Angels, Agnes of God and even The Da Vinci Code, but there’s also a snappy homage to His Girl Friday in a flashback that lets Busch appear in the regular drag he's famous for. If the more beatific moments of the actor’s performance as Mother Superior of a bizarre convent don’t remind you of Loretta Young, you may connect his occasionally throatier growl to Rosalind Russell (the star of both Trouble and His Girl Friday).

Busch has surrounded himself with equally comic cohorts. Mother Superior’s second in command is Sister Acacius, equipped by Julie Halston with a thick New Yawk accent and simmering Sturm und Drang. Whether she’s on a tirade about the propensity of young postulant Agnes (Amy Rutberg) to see the face of a saint in stained underwear and perform miracles; listening to the sexual exploits of an old friend (the strapping and lively Jonathan Walker, who doubles as a slouching, nefarious monk); or taking exception to an unprintable phrase that she’s misheard from Mother Superior, Halston is a riot.

Mother Superior must contend not only with Agnes and Acacius, but with a visiting nun from the mother house in Berlin. Voiced by Alison Fraser with a thick Germanic accent seemingly filtered through a dying kazoo, the suspicious Sister Walburga, who wears black gloves, radiates menace. Later on Fraser has the opportunity to do an outrageous Irish accent as a slatternly cleaning woman (dressed by Fabio Toblini in a sweater and skirt, with outrageously pendulous breasts; it appears to be the designer’s homage to Agnes Moorehead in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, although it makes Moorehead’s costume look elegant). The actress is vocally brilliant at both.

The convoluted plot defies explication. Suffice it to say, it involves saving the convent by getting money from a notoriously stingy atheist, Mrs. Morris Levinson; fending off the plot of an evil albino monk with a secret that could shake the foundations of Christianity; and discovering the real parents of not one, but two, orphans. And, of course, there must be an interlude or two for Mother Superior to pick up a guitar and sing a song. At times the plot seems just a bit overburdened, but under Carl Andress's direction, the cast brings a high level of energy and commitment to the proceedings, and the parody never becomes tiresome.

Busch’s script gives everyone a plateful of comic opportunities: Walker and Levinson have a scene reading a letter from Sister Acacius in which each gets to do an impression of her. Levinson also plays a young convent student, a boy who endures teasing and bullying from students who call him a faggot, and Mother Superior offers him some indulgent solace.

Though Busch has great affection for the subject matter, he also saves a few juicy comic digs at Catholicism for himself. “A new clinic just opened around the corner, devoted to women’s health and reproductive choices,” Mother Superior informs an old flame. “We’ll see what we can do about that!”

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You Wouldn't Need An Anchor if You Didn't Have a Story

Dan Rather, longtime CBS new anchor, is a monument. Before his recent brush with the faulty records regarding George W. Bush, he was a paragon of media

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