Tender Napalm, directed by David Norwood, is a postmodern love/hate story that examines the lines between fantasy and reality. When the play opens, a man (Amara James Aja) and a woman (Ayana Major Bey), face off and speak to each other in poetic language, filled with violent imagery and sexual innuendos. The abstract and poetic language, coupled with the nonlinear narrative, gives the play a surreal feel.
Barbershop quartets? What most people know about them is probably limited to The Music Man. Still, they’re jovial company in The Apple Boys, a delightful little musical at the HERE Arts Center, even if they’re not entirely boys. Jack (Jelani Remy), Nathan (Teddy Yudain), Warren (Jonothon Lyons, who wrote the book), and Hank (Amanda Ryan Paige) are turn-of-the-20th-century Coney Islanders, and Jack also happens to be Johnny Appleseed’s grandson. It’s the first in a long line of whimsies, anachronisms, and out-and-out lies that fetchingly tie the loose plot together.
Richard Saudek, the creator and performer of the one-man show, Beep Boop, is a self-confessed “idiot who likes to make faces at himself in the mirror.” If his program bio is to be believed, “when he was ten, he ran off to perform in the circus as a young clown, then left the circus at the age of sixteen to pursue other theatrical stuff, such as commedia dell’arte in Florence; improv in Chicago; stilt-walking in Shanghai; burlesque opposite Steve Buscemi; and has portrayed madmen and fools for over a decade all over NYC.” Whether Saudek’s resume is 100 percent accurate or not, one thing is certain: his kind of rigorous talent does not happen overnight.
An avant-garde, two-man show with five horn players, Fusiform Gyrus is like sliding down a long chute. It’s a reckless and even fun adventure, but you’re totally unsure of where you’ll end up. Written by Obie Award–winning Ellen Maddow and directed by Ellie Heyman at HERE Arts Center, Fusiform Gyrus is a meditation on life, death, and everything in between.
Nobody involved in the production of Casablanca expected it to be a hit, let alone win the Best Picture Oscar and go on to be considered one of the quintessentially quotable classic Hollywood films. If CasablancaBox, the new behind-the-scenes ensemble drama at HERE Arts Center, is to be believed, no one really wanted to make the film either. That we’re still watching it and talking about it 75 years later proves William Goldman’s famous dictum that in Hollywood, “nobody knows anything.”
There are only so many ways to describe the Jessica Scott's avant-garde Ship of Fools, currently at HERE Arts Center. On the one hand, it is a unique combination of original music, puppetry, video, and live action, yet on the other it comes across as disjointed and meaningless—imagine Disney’s “It’s a Small World” born in the 1960s Haight-Ashbury. The audience is seated on a platform that moves left or right, and sometimes rotates completely, giving the performers time to set up the next vignette on the perimeter.
The drug that gives Ana Nogueira’s new play its name, Empathitrax, fosters complete intimacy between two people in a relationship. The users take it with water, then wait a bit and touch each other—waves of empathy ensue as the feelings of the other become utterly accessible. It’s apparent almost immediately that the man and woman in Empathitrax—Nogueira’s script identifies them only as Him and Her—need artificial stimulation. As they meet with a delivery guy from Empath in their minimalist living room to discuss dosages and procedures, they interrupt themselves, grasp at each other awkwardly, smile uncomfortably and generally broadcast that their relationship is strong but that there might be some problems.
Nogueira develops her theme carefully. Focusing on a drug that interferes with one’s natural personality traits is not a fresh topic—Placebo and The Effect have been there—but Nogueira’s play is still a strong entry in a subgenre of modern drama. It allows its actors to work with a wide range of emotions. And those actors—Jimmi Simpson and Justine Lupe as Him and Her, and Genesis Oliver, who doubles as the Empath delivery man and as Him’s buddy Matty D.—give astonishingly good performances, not just charting the emotions unleashed by the drug, but investing the science-fiction aspect of the story with credibility. As they undergo the effects of Empathitrax, they touch each other and each feels what the other is feeling. The physical empathy they enact is persuasive and overpowering.
Simpson once starred on Broadway in The Farnsworth Invention and looked set to be a fixture in the theater, but forsook it for television work. He was clearly an actor of great gifts, and they have not diminished. He uses every second of stage time, much like Vanessa Redgrave, to create a pointillist portrait. One is afraid to look away for fear of missing the tiniest apt grimace, deep breath, or shoulder shift that conveys crucial information.
If Him is calm, rational, giving and patient with his partner to a fault in their daily lives, Her can still push his buttons at times. She buys a bed they cannot afford without consulting him, and that provokes exasperation. But every interaction, every hesitation, every flash of emotion between Simpson and Lupe is precisely evoked under Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s superb direction.
Lupe’s Her is needy and insecure, and although the opening scene with the delivery man plays like a Cowardian comedy of manners, things turn darker. “This play is a comedy, until it’s not,” reads a direction in the script. And it’s quite funny for awhile, as Him subsequently meets with his buddy Matty on the rooftop to vape and describe his experience with the drug. “I guess that I didn’t know how much the little things mattered to her and she, she didn’t realize just how much I cared about her,” he says. “But now we can actually show each other, transfer the information. It’s quick and it’s potent.”
Matty tries to relate every emotion to a past drug experience: “So it’s like doing Molly?” he asks. “So like, a Xanax.” He’s an expert on artificial stimulants, but, in a scene at a party with Her, he reveals that his impetus to using drugs may well be a result of his sick father: “He’s like, almost catatonic, all the shit they have him on. It’s keeping him alive which is good, I guess. But.” To which Her responds: “But what’s the point of being alive if you aren’t really taking it all in.”
It’s a modern dilemma—the desire to experience everything. Even the rampaging use of the Internet to see life in all corners of the earth, to miss nothing, to signpost one’s existence for others to notice, is a symptom. Her tries to finesse the shortcomings of her relationship with him by adopting a dog, Rufus, who is kept in a crate and sometimes barks and sometimes is heard chewing on treats (the sound design is by Matt Otto). Rufus’s unconditional love cheers her, and Lupe has a couple monologues with the dog, in which she displays her neediness: “Do you like me even a little? Do you realize I saved your life? No one in the world knows what could have happened to you if you stayed in that shelter.”
In Nogueira’s satisfying ending, well grounded but still a surprise, the author comes down on the side of natural experience rather than chemically induced effects. Simpson’s Him does something uncharacteristic—he improvises—and the delicacy and romance of the final moments pull the play back from the darkness enveloping it. It’s no longer a comedy gone awry.
Colt Coeur's production of Empathitrax plays at HERE Arts Center (145 Sixth Ave., entrance on Dominick Street) through Oct. 1. Evening performances are at 8:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 7 p.m. Sundays and on Monday, Sept. 26. There is also a matinee at 4 p.m. on Oct. 1. Tickets are $18 and may be purchased by visiting here.org.
Idiot, now at the lovely main space at HERE, is a feast of multimedia effects. With crisscrossed Persian carpets forming aisles that divide the audience into four quarters, video panels above, and heated Oriental rhythms in the background, the story unfolds. How to capture the innocence and depths of the epileptic Prince Lev Myshkin, portrayed by Daniel Kublick, in this theatrical version of and hommage to the great Dostoevsky novel? With a script that focuses on the tempestuous relations of four key characters of the Dostoevsky work; with philosophical riffs; with inventive use of video, light, and sound; with song, dance, gesture and interaction with the audience! This is immersive theater, a specialty at SoHo’s HERE, an award-winning theater organization devoted to the support of new work that cuts across artistic disciplines. Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues was developed at HERE.
If romantic triangles usually involve a triad, the triangle in this case has four corners: the lascivious Parfyon Rogozhin is obsessed by Nastasya Filippovna. Her hand in marriage, however, is also sought by the Prince who is, at the very same time, in love with the vivacious Aglaya Epanchin. The central conflict of the play, then, concerns the Prince’s love for both women.
The fallen, dissolute, but proud Nastasya Filippovna, fetchingly portrayed by Purva Bedi, disdains money (at one point she throws 100,000 rubles of Rogozhin’s money into a fire) and sees through the lies of others no less than the mind-reading Prince himself, who loves her “out of pity.” Lauren Cipoletti plays Aglaya. Also loved by the gentle Prince, and a beauty of good family standing, Aglaya shares much with him, including a great love of children. The blue-eyed, soulful and energetic Prince Myshkin, beautifully performed by Daniel Kublick, is the “idiot” of the title.
Rogozhin is played with verve and flourish by Merlin Whitehawk. The audience is treated to extremes of passion of the most brutal and delicate varieties; a motif of execution to emphasize the underlying question of life, its purpose and the experience of it; as well as the stormy relations among a virgin-harlot dyad (the female characters), a lecherous drunk, and an invalid Prince who is spiritual and hardly of this world.
This is the third partnering of Robert Lyons (text) and Kristin Marting (director and choreographer) in the adaptation of a work by Dostoevsky. And theirs is a rollicking and “immersive” production, to say the least. The point of immersive theater is to move past the limits of merely “watching” a staged production in order to create an experience that is more active, richer, and, presumably, deeper by “immersing” the audience in multiple theatrical effects. Always, the question must finally be asked, what exactly was accomplished by all of these theatrical goings-on?
There were arresting moments in this production. On several occasions, the sound of the Prince’s speech is engineered so that his words are somewhat muffled and have the distant sound of an echo, brilliantly suggesting the interiority of his spoken thoughts. At another point, the Prince is deeply moving as he wanders among the audience, accosts individual audience members and soliloquizes on the subject of human love, bringing some in his audience to tears.
But, for the most part, inventive use of video, gesture and dance, the dramatic story and interludes of deeper rumination do not, finally, cohere to immerse us in anything more than that spectacle itself. We are entertained but, finally, not enlarged in the course of this production.
It is unfair to require the depth of spiritual exploration and of character that is the greatness of the large and rambling Dostoevsky novel. This is another work entirely, in another genre entirely. The achievement of Dostoevsky cannot be condensed into a mere 75 minutes. But it is not unfair to ask that the heart and soul be moved in the course of those 75 minutes and, given the extremes of human feeling and experience brought into view, moved deeply. That, one would hope, is the real goal of the best work in experimental immersive theater.
Idiot plays through May 21 at HERE Arts Center (145 Sixth Ave.; entrance on Dominick Street). Performances are at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at www.here.org or by calling (212) 352-3101 or at the HERE Box Office (5 p.m. until curtain on show days).