IRT Theater

Quicksand

Quicksand

Quicksand is an apt name for the ambitious world premiere production of Regina Robbins’ theatrical adaptation of Nella Larsen’s semi-autobiographical work of fiction, written in 1928 and set in the same period. It chronicles the story of Helga Crane, a woman of both mixed ancestry and mixed race, who is, for that very reason, a tortured soul.

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Define Liberated

It's difficult to get excited about six straight, homogeneous women sitting around in a weekly support group in Brooklyn eating Chinese, drinking wine, and going on about work, men, and sex in the age of Tinder. Imagine watching The View—add food, wine, and Zumba but without an ethnically diverse panel or politics and you’ve got a gist of #liberated playing at the IRT Theater in Manhattan. Conceived and written by Lillian Meredith, who also is one of the actors, the play is created by an ensemble of artists known as "The Living Room," dedicated to creating work about contemporary American women.

#liberated starts out relatively innocuous. The “Sister Support Group for the Daily Trials of Being a Woman,” a.k.a. W-I-P-E (an acronym which is never explained), meets weekly and begins each meeting with a fast and crazy video on learning Zumba moves. This week one of the members invited another woman to join them without asking the group first. The women seem to be put off by someone new inhabiting their “safe space” but soon acquiesce. They pour her a generous mug of wine as if to symbolize acceptance into the tribe. The topic this evening starts out smartly enough about the sexual exploitation of women in advertising, and the conversation devolves into who watches porn and who doesn’t. Over the next few meetings the women decide to bring samples of porn that each like to share with everyone, and the reactions to each other’s choices are quite funny. Then they get the idea to create a more feminist version of porn with each creating a scene to be acted out and videotaped. Realizing that this may actually empower and liberate other women they upload the finished product to the Internet with one swift click.

The video takes off—like after like, share after share—that is, until the internet trolls, hiding behind avatars and fake names (probably sitting in the dark in their underwear in their parents' basement) come out of the woodwork. This scene is similar to watching celebrities read mean tweets about themselves. The trolls are horrific, one wishing they would “drink bleach and die” and another spewing, “I’m ready to pump GENIUS level sperm into your football shaped body.” The women loose focus of their original intent and create a new set of sexual videos trolling the trolls. Nothing good comes of it, and the play turns extremely dark.

#liberated is co-directed by Rachel Karp and Jaki Bradley—it’s almost as if one directed the first half with the other directing the second. There are some good comedic moments early on, although not sustained, and it’s easy to see that the women enjoy each other. Dancing to Enya with multi-colored scarves to simulate an undulating vulva is actually a pretty funny scene. However, there is nothing sexy enough nor hardcore enough to warrant the vitriol foisted at them by the internet trolls. The sexual scenarios mostly come off as silly and tame; which begs, why the backlash? These are women who most likely would have experimented in college. They know of PornHub and Max After Dark, but beyond that the script lacks imagination and daring.

As an ensemble piece, #liberated includes Tamara Del Rosso, Zoë Sophia Garcia, Lillian Meredith, Gabby Sherba, Taylor Shurte, and Madison Welterlen. They are good enough given a marginal script. The Brooklyn apartment set design by Frank Oliva has an Ikea look which includes nice lighting credited to Scot Gianelli. The sound design by Ben Vigus is across the board and oddly employs misogynistic rap music between the scenes. Vigus evokes Internet sounds, television newscasts, and lively Zumba-type music.

In the world of over sharing on the Internet, between Facebook and every social media app, #liberated seemed to want to say something profound. Unfortunately, it never said enough. It did not include women of color, or create a powerful, lasting conversation. In a year where we may see the first female president in this country, it’s way past time for women to step up and truly make a difference in the world for women. At best the only message here is don’t engage in a battle on the Internet—no one ever wins.

#liberated runs until June 19 at IRT Theater (154 Christopher St., 3 Floor, #3 B) in Manhattan. Performances are Wednesday through Monday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $18 and are available at rttheater.org.

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Cheers!

The illusory brand of theatrical magic is difficult to find—especially in solo shows. Precious few one-man productions can effectively create that beautiful “baseless fabric” of a transportive play, and even then, their illusions are sometimes imperfect. A single body moves across a deserted stage with not much else but light and music and those elemental players for company. It’s easy to falter when carrying the weight of performance alone, but writer/comedian Terri Girvin, the multi-character star of director Michael Leeds' production of Last Call at the IRT Theater, bolsters an otherwise ordinary tale of a long-serving New York bartender with surprising humor and extraordinary moments of intimacy.

Pools of soft, yellowing light accompany Terri Girvin as she moves through her life story. She begins with a series of easy jokes; "Top 10 Ways to Annoy Your Bartender" is a recurring and sometimes quite delightful theme that runs through her monologues. She then proceeds to insert details of her family’s dysfunctional history in momentary, painful snapshots. These scenes are relayed with grim amusement on Girvin’s part, as it is her mother, a divorced, drink-happy ex-party clown who is the source of this dysfunction. Here, Girvin’s practiced, punch-line-delivering style gives way to the emotional drama of her relationship with her mother. Halfway through the play, the audience becomes unsure of its laughs, and seem more comfortable in silence.

But the scenes themselves are transitory. They seem more like floating motes of experiential anecdotes rather than seamless parts of an organic autobiography. Here is where Girvin’s talent for stand-up comedy interferes slightly with theatrical storytelling. The moments in which Girvin’s mother steps onto the stage in the guise of her own daughter are short; Girvin impersonates her mother uneasily, and is keen to relieve her audience’s tension with a joke. It’s easy for the audience to see that Girvin’s mother is an emotionally dependent, paranoid, unstable and completely unfit parent, but somehow her daughter doesn’t realize that this legacy is in her hands until the end. Consequently, Girvin’s mother, only heard and not seen, is never fully redeemed. For most of the production, she is a two-dimensional weight on her daughter’s shoulders. Girvin, by her own reckoning, deeply desires “freedom from the weight of her [mother’s] trauma.”

Regardless of these dips in storytelling, it is apparent that Girvin is the only person from her family who can stand her mother’s antics. She also seems, by her own telling, to be more involved in her mother’s disorganized life than her largely indifferent brothers. Girvin’s brother is especially blunt: “It’s fun when the circus comes to town, but when the circus never leaves!” A particularly hectic night at the bar sees Girvin taking close to 50 orders every 10 minutes. It is perhaps the aural and visual climax of the entire production. Girvin’s silent co-stars put on terrific performances, as evidenced by the unique collaboration between Grammy-nominated sound designer Phil Palazzolo and lighting designer Jason Fok.

With not a single prop in sight, Girvin clinks imaginary shot glasses onto the bar and pours fizzing drafts of beer into empty steins. She chats genially with the disembodied voices of her customers and slams a nonexistent cash register closed before turning to the audience and grinningly inquiring, “What can I getcha?” Every delectable sound, from the dull roar of conversation to the sloshing of a drink, matches in near-perfect synchronicity with Girvin’s expert movements. Every voice has its own extraordinarily ordinary life; Palazzolo and Fok have squeezed alchemical gold from the listless air with their superb intertwining of light and sound.

But the harmony of Girvin’s movements, in perfect beat and cadence to the swing of her bar, quickly devolves into chaos when she receives a call from her mother. Without revealing Girvin’s mother’s shocking escapade, and the proverbial last straw for Girvin herself, the harried and exhausted bartender ends up kicking everyone out of her bar. She listens shamefacedly to her customer’s insults and drunken raging (who only minutes before had flirted, smiled or laughed with her). She then slams her phone onto the bar, looking out teary-eyed and tired at her arrested audience as we wonder: Was that their last call?

It is this explosive scene that discloses the fundamental problem Girvin has with marrying the architecture of her life to that of her mother. We are never sure if she takes up the Sisyphean task of maintaining any semblance of a relationship with her mother after this. But this unmarried, diminutive, middle-aged working woman is still a hopeful, optimistic child at heart. Her ever-cheerful retort to the dull greeting, “How are you?” is a loud, “Living the dream!” The final scene is nostalgically beautiful, and we stitch up her disparate stories of love, loss and emotional pain into a safe blanket we wish we could cover her in. And in perhaps the most moving, and most fitting, end to this darkly humorous tale of a life not yet fully lived, Girvin leaves us with no ending. We only have her memories.

Last Call ran from Oct. 9-Nov. 1 at the IRT Theater (154 Christopher St., #3B) in Manhattan. For more information, visit www.terranovacollective.org.

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A Slanted Perspective

The reality in New York City and the rest of the modern world can seem absurd, morbid and mysterious from one minute to the next. Troy Deutsch’s In a Tilted Place shows just how strange life can really get. The production is a series of nine outlandish short plays, or wild scenes, and opens with a giddy, young woman (Cassandra Stokes-Wylie) retelling her “very, very real” dream. In her dream, she saw herself as a spirited girl, who had faith in God and ate ice cream at her local Dairy Queen. In her small town she “[biked] down Main Street with streamers on [her] handlebars.” Her story starts to take an unexpected turn when she shares about her first love, an “All-American quarterback.” She had group sex with her football player boyfriend and a brown, squirrel mascot who had “actual squirrel fur,” small paws and human eyes.

These creepy twists and turns are consistent throughout In a Tilted Place, and theatergoers wonder what this show is trying to say about the world we live in. The characters are in environments that seem normal at first and then their circumstances become bizarre and surreal. The female characters are often portrayed as controlling, manipulative, sex-crazed maniacs and the men are aloof, unavailable, drunk or driven mad by women. The value of this production is its ability to present ordinary, day-to-day life as uncanny, odd and whimsical. In a Titled Place is able to disgust, enlighten and provoke audience members.

In the second play, Chanel Chance, a lonely, desperate, young woman Ella (Kelsie Jepsen) sits in a cafe and tries to read Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Goldfinch.” Ella catches the gaze of a young man (Ronald Peet) sitting at another table and asks, “Are you someone? I’m sorry. But I noticed… Are you watching me? I’ve been looking over here and…” Their quirky exchange quickly becomes heated and even more awkward when Ella discovers that her own father has been paying this young man to spy on her. Ella forcefully kisses the man and demands, “Just look at me. Just smell me. Smell me. Smell my neck. Smell it. Smell it.” It is like watching a weirder version of an episode from “The Twilight Zone.”

This is Peet’s opening scene and his heavenly voice is abruptly overshadowed by Jepsen’s frenzied performance as she dominates the space. Peet is an exceptional actor from the Bahamas who graduated from the Tisch School of the Arts Drama program at New York University. Directors Ashley Brooke Monroe and Courtney Ulrich could balance out this scene by having Peet speak directly to the audience more often and have Jepsen slow down a bit. In a later play, Glowing Dinoflagellates, Peet plays naive and impressionable Benjamin. Benjamin is seduced by a powerful, horny, middle-aged woman (Pamela Shaw) to stay at her vacant inn on a cliff. Peet and Shaw’s authentic chemistry and first-rate performances complement each other extremely well and create a solid foundation for other actors to shine. Sex slaves (Sean Kazarian and Michael Kingsbaker) generously contribute to heightening this scene by bringing comic relief as they ramble on in unison about their torturous stay at the inn.

This production’s material is too insular and will likely not travel beyond audiences who enjoy fringe theater. In Brown Fish, a young woman sits on a bench in a concrete park and confesses to her male friend about her roommate’s poop cabin. She describes the poop cabin as “A brown, self-induced, feces log cabin. Like from pioneer days. But the logs, instead of wood, were made of poop.”  Wider audiences may not appreciate this production’s unconventional subject matter and style.

The set design by Kate Noll is uncomplicated with a few pieces of furniture and gray, bland walls that look like concrete. Viewers get the sense that these characters exist between a rock and a hard spot. It is like watching a group of people living in an emergency exit hallway in the basement of a skyscraper, and they do not know that the building is on fire. This minimalistic approach is not distracting and allows for audiences to focus solely on the performances. The simplicity works when a mermaid (Rachel Moulton) slowly drags herself across the floor and onto the stage in Call Me Daryl Hannah. Audiences are captivated watching her struggle as she pulls her body and huge fin across the bare, hard surfaces to meet a young, drunk man (Kingsbaker) sitting on a park bench.

In a Tilted Place relies on shocking and unusual subject matter to create tension and mystery. Audience members can turn into distant bystanders who are merely observing. As observers, they can become disconnected from these unique characters and not know how to relate. A clearer overall aim and vision could create a deeper appreciation for this production’s willingness to transcend traditional ideas.

In a Tilted Place runs until Aug. 30 at the IRT Theater (third floor of 154 Christopher St. between Washington and Greenwich Sts. in Manhattan). Evening performances are Monday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and matinee performances are Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased by calling 800-838-3006 or visiting BrownPaperTickets.com.

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