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. Before he goes, however, Grandpa manages to confide in Rookie the so-called Secret to leading the bureau to greatness: following the song in his heart.  

The bureau, Rookie discovers, is an operation which specializes in covering up political scandals by distracting the unknowing public with celebrity magazines and reality show blunders. He meets the round of board members who make up the bureau's eclectic staff, including lovelorn personal assistant Tary (short for Secretary, natch); the ever-helpful Board Member 1 and Ted, a dim-witted but enthusiastic member of the team, to name a few. Rounding out this motley crew — and grounding it back to some semblance of normalcy — is a man named Harry, Grandpa's best friend and confidante, who also happens to look strikingly similar to his fallen friend. Through Harry, Rookie is able to take his place at the bureau and complete his first assignment: to cover-up a potential scandal regarding an affair between Madame President and a terrorist. Meanwhile, Agent X grows ever more determined to overthrow his position in the bureau. Armed with a hot outfit, a decibel-defying voice and a gang of Fierce Ass Queens, Agent X is poised to take over the bureau, one scandal at a time. As she quietly plays along with Rookie's idea of putting on a musical based on a botched cover-up (ahem, Watergate: The Musical, anyone?) as a cover-up for the imminent Madame President scandal, Agent X finds herself having to cover-up her own secrets.

A show about shows and the power of escape through song, Propaganda! is a bold, entertaining escape itself. No need for cover-ups here: with its memorable songs by creators Taylor Ferrera and Matt Webster (I dare you to try to get "Unrequited Love Song" out of your head); bright, quirky costumes by Sky Switser and flawless choreography by Jason Sparks and Kristen Hoagland, Propaganda shines as one of the most promising musicals in development. The dialogue is rife with "blink-and-you'll-miss-it" references and clever one-liners by the cast members themselves. Dale Sampson is perfectly cast as the protagonist, Rookie, and Kenita Miller is deliciously devious as Agent X. It is difficult to single out just one performance by the stellar company, but the ones that were perhaps the most enjoyable to watch were Ben Redding, Nick Mason and Shaun Repetto as Agent X's girls — but then again, this critic has a certain penchant for sassy chorus boys singing and dancing in unison, if for morally ambiguous reasons. Other notable performances included Beth Cheryl Tarnow as Tary; Marc Cornes as Ted (who hilariously gets his chance to shine in the show's musical-within-a-musical); and MaryJoanna Grisso as a woman so eager to join the department that she disguises herself as a rotating cast of characters called Operator 3, Beth, Marcia, Actor 3 and Jan. 

Funny, fabulous and full of heart, this is one piece of Propaganda you'll definitely want to buy into.

Propaganda! The Musical ran from July 23- July 27 at the PTC Performance Space (555 West 42nd Street) as part of the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival. For more information, visit www.propagandathemusical.com.

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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.

The group, six men and seven women, for the most part sing a cappella, although on occasion they are accompanied by a guitarist. They have adapted Stein’s text, and, under the direction of Michelle Sutherland, perform Stein’s words with dynamism.

Saint Therese, In follow and saints.
Saint Therese. To be somewhere with or without saints.
Saint Therese can never mention the others.
Saint Therese to them. Saints not found. All four saints not more than all four saints.

Or, later on:

Saint Chavez. How many doors are there in it how may floors are there in it how many doors are there in it how many windows are there in it how many floors are there in it how many windows are there in it how many doors are there in it?

What can one make of such abstruse lyrics? Or of “When I wish radishes there”? Or “Pigeons on the grass, alas” — famous, but not more understandable in context. Quite a lot, it turns out. Stein’s words matter less than the sounds, and the cast has abandoned the score by Thomson to set the words to music of its own devising. Producer Jordan Harrison took the stage and informed the audience that the music was written in five days. Considering its excellence, that’s pretty amazing.

Many more than four saints’ names arise during the evening, but Cecilia, Chavez and Ignatius are among the most often mentioned, though counting them up is as irrelevant as trying to find a plot. Two guitars sit on stage but are rarely used. Voices are the primary instruments, and the invention of the performers carries the day. Fingers snap, hands clap, and feet stamp to provide percussion, the latter sometimes with splendid choreography (uncredited) that varies from marching to athletic leaps and even a mock ballet by a young male performer in a shirt with cars on it — he’s the clown of the group, insofar as any single person has been individualized.

The musical settings evoke different eras of 20th-century American popular music. There are elements of bebop, gospel, Beach Boys, '60s folk, yodeling and country — if you close your eyes, you might even hear the '30s vogue for ukulele on a lightly strummed guitar.

Sutherland has staged the proceedings with unflagging exuberance, with an occasional scene making one wonder if there's a plot. At one point, the performers seem to go off the rails mentally, pulling off their clothes and acting crazily, and they end up on the floor, spent. Later on, paper money falls and the cast goes wild, scooping it up and rubbing it on themselves as if it were soap. What it means is anyone’s guess, but the moments pass, and they gather themselves up and move on. 

The backgrounds designed by Diego Montoya resonate with American and beach iconography: Mount Rushmore, an eagle, white picket fences, sunglasses and muscle cars. His beachwear costumes luxuriate in pastels and white. Short-sleeve shirts cover T-shirts and tank tops. Sneakers abound. Some performers have capri pants. (Perhaps the only misstep is putting the sole hoodie on a young black male performer, even though it’s blue.)

The proceedings may be abstract, but the effect is exhilarating. Anyone who wants to venture far afield theatrically will find terrific young musicians and performers at Abrons. Go in with no expectations and you’ll be pleasantly surprised, perhaps even astonished.

Theater Plastique's production of Gertrude Stein Saints! will be presented through June 28, Thursday through Sunday at 8 p.m., at Abrons Arts Center (466 Grand St. at Pitt St.). For tickets, call OvationTix at 866-811-4111 or visit www.abronstartscenter.org.

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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. The figure, only know as The Other (Celeste Hastings), dances in a flurry of disjointed, transcendent choreography, acting as the physical embodiment of the mother's psychological world. What results is a creepy, at times disconcerting look at the dysfunctional relationship between a mother and daughter. The doll, Colleen, bears witness to it all and provides the chilling realization towards the end: when her own mother wasn't around, the doll was always there.

While rich in its concept, the play did not reflect this in it. Most of the play's text is told through the two characters' letters to one another, and while it was definitely important to each character's emotional arcs, it also started to lose its significance by the play's end. Repetitions of lines — which pertain to financial expenses Hannah has incurred — are at first a haunting accompaniment to the abstract aesthetic the piece is going for. However, after it extends for more than just a few minutes, it quickly becomes wearing, leaving one confused as to what the play is trying to say. Where the textual aspects of the play were shaky, other elements — such as design — managed to shine through. In addition, while the more captivating scenes were the dance sequences — which were choreographed not only by Ferragallo, but also by Hastings herself — the dancer and her connection to the Mother was not immediately made, and were it staged differently, would have made the play's message more powerful. Still, not all was lost: Alexander Bartenieff's lighting design was magnificent, lending itself beautifully to the dark whenever possible. 

Co-director Andreas Robertz's sound design also helped play up the story's darker themes, perfectly complementing the aforementioned lighting, as well as the choreography. The two main actors also made eye-catching turns, breathing life into their characters as best they could. Quintero gave a strong performance as the beautiful but damaged titular character Charlotte. Golden was equally forceful as Hannah, going so far as to step into the audience, almost calling on them for help as she drifted into the dark.

If living inside your head is maddening enough, perhaps it is even more maddening trying to do so in a broken home. Charlotte's Song, despite its weaknesses, manages to take that madness within and physicalize it into a beautifully broken piece of dance.

Charlotte's Song is playing at the Theater for the New City (155 First Avenue at East 10th Street) until May 11. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $12 and can be purchased by calling 212-254-1109 or visiting www.theaterforthenewcity.net.  

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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.

The journey begins with a gentle touch on the shoulders and a deep inhale. Oberfelder then leads you down a corridor which brings you into a dark room where a dancer places each audience member on the floor. A headache inducing kaleidoscope-like film of dancers slamming into walls and touching each others' chests is screened across the ceiling. Just when the video loops around to play for the third time, a dancer lifts you up and walks you into a white-walled room where they are greeted by the full ensemble.

Each participant is paired up with a dancer and taken on a journey through touch, dance and physical movement. This is the first time audience members experience Oberfelder's choreography in full effect by the whole cast. The dancing is heartfelt and passionate, but the movements at times felt awkward and stiff. There were moments where the dancers felt connected and there were other times where it felt jerky and forced. As a viewer, it was hard to stay fully immersed to the performance because of these moments.

Participants are then split into two groups. One room measures each person's heartbeat through his or her index finger and another room has tablets playing videos of the heart, arteries and veins. This portion of the piece was entirely disconnected from the rest of the chambers, and felt more like a museum tour rather than a "sensorial journey into the human heart," as described by Oberfelder. 

The latter parts of 4Chambers were by far the most innovative, thoughtful and artistic. Six chairs are placed in a white room that resembles an old bathroom. Each dancer places a blood pressure finger monitor on an audience member and a man projects against the wall and directly asks personal questions such as "is there anything in your life you regret?" or "was there a mistake you wish you could take back, and if yes, what was it?" Essentially, the six individuals placed in that room are complete strangers and yet are forced into an uncomfortable situation where the choices are to get comfortable or push the chance to be vulnerable away. There was something entirely humanistic, cathartic and touching about this specific part of the journey that left everyone feeling open and changed.

The piece ends with a dramatic dance performance in a room draped in red curtains, symbolizing a beating heart. The choreography and synchronicity in this particular dance were far more impressive than the former dance at the beginning of the show, but the problem with 4Chambers is particularity the choreography. While it definitely has its soft moments, there was an overload of unnecessary stomping, awkward transitions and ungraceful moves.

The performance as a whole was an experience like no other. It's the ensemble's responsibility to make you feel safe and entertained, but it's also the audience members' willingness to participate in the art that makes for a good show. There's nothing more moving than seeing and feeling physical intimacy which 4Chambers attained. Though it came up short in some areas, the overall experience was unexpected yet thrilling.

4Chambers plays at Arts@Renaissance (2 Kingsland Ave. at Maspeth Ave.) in Brooklyn through March 22. Performances are Thursday at 6:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Regular tickets are $75 and available at https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/50. For group buyout and limited student/artist tickets, e-mail dana@jodyoberfelder.com.

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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.

Then She Fell is a fast-paced combination of drama, dance and intricate design that explores psychological implications of events in the life of Lewis Carroll and plot points of his literary masterpieces, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Zach Morris, Tom Pearson and Jennine Willett, artistic directors of Third Rail, are credited as writers of the piece; but the company’s promotional literature suggests that all 30 Third Rail members have contributed to its creation.

Upon arrival for Then She Fell, audience members, who must be 21 years of age (except at special 18-and-over, alcohol-free performances), enter a waiting room, where a woman in nurse's garb serves fortified wine. The place is supposed to be a 19th-century hospital. Visitors are invited to examine the premises, including the contents of cupboards and shelves. In due course, white-coated men and women arrive to escort playgoers on a two-hour journey through corridors, staircases and chambers (designed by Rachel Kenner, Morris, Pearson, and Willett) which represent medical consulting rooms, the precincts of Oxford University, and places related to the characters' fantasies and dreams.

Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was a mathematics don at Christ Church College, Oxford, in a time when Oxbridge academics, regardless of their fields of study, were required to be Anglican clergymen. He was a pioneering photographer as well; but now, of course, he's known primarily as author of the Alice books, which supposedly began with a yarn Carroll invented to divert the children of his friend Henry Liddell, dean of Christ Church, during an excursion on the Thames River in the summer of 1862. One of those children, Alice Liddell, became the model for the Alice of Carroll's fiction and also posed for Carroll and his camera.

The friendship of Carroll and the Liddells (especially, Alice) has long been a matter of speculation among historians and literary critics. In the Third Rail version of things, Alice's tumble down the rabbit hole corresponds to her involvement with the older mathematician/author. The wild things that happen in Wonderland are connected to adolescent libido, obsessive attraction and the generally complicated family dynamics of the Liddell household.     

Like Punchdrunk's wildly popular Sleep No More (still playing in Chelsea), Then She Fell immerses the audience in an exotic, topsy-turvy world where the boundaries between madness and sanity are uncertain. At Sleep No More, one wanders at will through a perplexing mix of Shakespeare's Macbeth and an Alfred Hitchcock aesthetic. Then She Fell doesn't permit playgoers to roam. It's a tour — strictly guided — through the shattered logic and intriguing nonsense of Alice's world, with special attention to possible erotic implications of Carroll's biography. The playgoer is led (and sometimes pushed) toward scenes and tableaux that are, in turn, funny and touching and, now and then, unsettling (though never intimidating).

The action of Then She Fell, like the choreography of abstract ballet, is evocative rather than clearly narrative. The visitor, separated from the companions with whom he or she has arrived, spends some scenes alone and others among a changing coterie of fellow spectators. With arresting lighting design by Kryssy Wright and mesmerizing music by Sean Hagerty, Then She Fell is a dreamlike experience in which the "fourth wall" that ordinarily isolates the actors dissolves, enveloping the playgoer in the drama and creating a very personal Wonderland.   

Then She Fell, written, directed, designed and choreographed by Zach Morris, Tom Pearson and Jennine Willett; presented by Third Rail Projects at The Kingsland Ward at St. Johns (195 Maujer Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn) runs Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. and currently scheduled through June 30. Running time: two hours without intermission. Tickets range from $95-$135 (with special offers and group rates available) from www.thenshefell.com, boxoffice@thirdrailprojects.com or 718-374-5196.

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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. With this in mind, I was naturally curious of what was in store for me and it was not long after I crossed the threshold into the lobby that I would soon find out for myself.

Setting the tone way before the house even opened, I was immediately greeted with a haze of red light – which would also fill into the performance space itself – and the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald’s jazzy vocals pervading the lobby. Attendants dressed in snazzy, old-fashioned garb offered drinks and as the place started to brim with conversing theatergoers, I started to feel immersed into another world, as if by taking that step across the threshold, I had literally taken a step back in time. This feeling only increased as the night wore on, beginning with my entrance into the Minetta’s cozy space, which was awash with the aforementioned red (or shall we say, rouge) light and cloudy with smoke, ready for our viewing pleasure.

The world of Nutcracker Rouge is one rife with human contortionists, cross-dressing 18th-century fops, harlequins, aerialists, flamenco dancers and cabaret singers. Indeed, this is not your grandmother’s Nutcracker. Just as young Clara is swept into a different world in her sleep, so are we as soon as we enter the theater. In the red light of the theater, we follow a young woman in a Baroque dress named Marie-Claire (this production’s Clara, if you will) as she literally makes her way through the audience and to the stage, where she is presented with a nutcracker of her very own by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Drosselmeyer.

With the twinkling first notes of Tchaikovsky’s iconic score in the background, Marie-Claire falls into a deep fantasy – but it is not a mouse kingdom she encounters. Instead she finds herself among a band of performers in a place called the Kingdom of the Sweets, a sensual cabaret show where all your desires are revealed. Leading this kingdom of misfits are the Drosselmeyers, who now act as emcees and present the Sweets: 10 performing acts, all of which are designed to titillate and enchant. There are the Cherries, a trio of dancers; Turkish Delight, a gymnast; Candy Cane, a Cyr wheel performer; Candied Violets; Chocolate, an enthralling flamenco dancer; the Licorice boys, a trio of cross-dressing doms; Champagne, where we toast Marie-Claire's journey at the start of the second act; Cake, from whence the surprise chocolate filling pops; Macaroons, where Mrs. Dross performs a rendition of Madonna's "Material Girls" amidst a hilariously raucous onstage orgy; and finally, the Sugarplum Fairy, in which Marie-Claire makes her debut.

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; from the lighting to the sets and costume design, Nutcracker Rouge paints a striking picture. The lighting lends itself beautifully to the piece, as Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s cues throughout blend wonderfully with the smoke to create a hazy glow, the effect of which is stunning to witness. Zane Pihlstrom’s sets – while sparse, evidently reflect some Brechtian influence, with the exposure of not only the steel frame of the curtain but also of the performers themselves, who could be seen dressing for the next act. These devices only help to further heighten the theatrical experience. Pihlstrom’s costumes appropriately accompany the music in terms of anachronisms, juxtaposing early 20th century circus palettes and sequined gowns befitting a 1960s lounge singer against modern remixes of the original Nutcracker score and jazz standards. The result is the sweetest eye (and ear) candy of all the Sweets.

As with any truly spectacular production, it is the performers of Rouge which are the main attraction, providing the visual centerpiece to any staging. As the Drosselmeyers, both Jeff Takacs and Shelly Watson are ever the consummate actors; Takacs is the storyteller to Watson’s showstopper, injecting both humor and mystery as they help move the story along. Laura Careless as Marie-Claire exudes both the innocence and sensuality needed for the character's journey into womanhood. The performers that make up the Sweets are just as deliciously sinful as the candies they portray. A mix of Wizard of Oz meets Marie Antoinette meets Cirque du Soleil, Nutcracker Rouge is a provocative, avant-garde piece of theater that will thrill and delight.

Nutcracker Rouge is playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre (18 Minetta Lane) until Jan. 5, 2013. Performances are Monday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. There are no performances on Dec. 8, 15, 24 and Jan. 1. Tickets range from $39-$79 with premium seats starting at $99. Running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes including intermission. 

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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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