new ohio theatre

Bodily Functions

What’s odd about Body: Anatomies of Being at the New Ohio Theatre, is that, as much as it wants to break the audience out of being shocked by nudity, the script doesn’t measure up. The dialogue goads the audience to be comfortable with the body and all of its functions, “Wake up. Fart. Pee. Blow nose while pooping. Burp. Yawn. Drink water. Burp. Cough. Blow nose. Pick at clogged hair follicle under right arm. Burp.” But seriously, to what end? When all the actors have plucked and trimmed their pubic hair to a landing strip, are you really that comfortable with the body? A number of challenges steer this production off purpose.

The performance incorporates modern dance with spoken vignettes, including a very long opening sequence, almost constant movement occurring behind each scene, and a long, repetitious number at the end. Given that the piece is about the body, the movement is appropriate, but for as much effort and rehearsal that must have taken place, it is evident not all the actors are dancers. Choreographed movement is at times erratic and more often distracting. Luckily, lighting director Jay Ryan has a keen eye and a swift hand to drive the focus. 

Nine actors, naked except for one, come to the front of the of stage processional-style to form a single line. A Chorus Line comes to mind—“I bet you're looking at my tits.” There is shuffling, scratching, and the occasional clearing of a throat before one actor begins to speak to the audience in a chiding manner about the naked body. And so begins the first of what comes off as a series of lectures—a humanities class on how the public has been taught to be sexual consumers and yet fear nudity, or the science class on how lab mice have been trained with electroshock therapy to avoid cherry blossoms. Later the mice story is embellished further to encompass slavery, awkwardly attempting to put it at the cause of racism today.

The script of Body breaks the fourth wall, pulling focus from multiple story lines in the script, not just for the audience, but, it appears, for those who had a hand in writing it. It is a stumbling block to caring about any of the nine characters. The performance was conceived and directed by Jessica Burr, artistic director of Blessed Unrest. Matt Opatrny, in collaboration with the ensemble, wrote the text. There were few moments where the story lines have closure and some even weave together; however, for the most part it plays as a series of vignettes tied together with a great deal of movement.

Two stories and their characters stand out—Chloe (Sevrin Anne Mason) for her unflinching discussion of body weight and acceptance, hers and others, and Nadezhda (Tatyana Kot) as a Chernobyl and double-mastectomy cancer survivor. Mason’s naked interchange with the artist’s model Martin is fresh.

Chloe: “Don’t see potential when you look at me. This is my body, and it might not change.”
Martin: “You’re beautiful.”
Chloe: “Are you surprised? To feel that for me? For this fat body.”
Martin: “No, not at all. I’m thrilled. Like I’ve just woken up. You woke me up.”

Kot’s delivery of Nadezhda’s shift from gratitude to the frankness about a growing up in a uranium mining town, where everyone has a shortened life expectancy, is unmistakable.

Nadezhda: “But, because of the 53 years they had really nice stuff, stuff that most people in the Soviet Union did not have, stuff like sweatpants from Bulgaria and sneakers from Yugoslavia, and visitors would see that stuff and say, ‘Wow, look at all that stuff you have!’ And that little girl, she would smile and stand very tall in her sweatpants and think, ‘I am so lucky,’ but her father would not smile because he knew about the 53 years. And then the meltdown at Chernobyl happened, and no one smiled anymore.” .

For so many things like these that are right about Body, there are too many more that don’t line up. It’s evident that the cast worked hard, with many moving parts and a narrative that transitions quickly from one to another. A stronger hand to cut extraneous dialogue, direction that needs to shave off the two extra endings, and even a lighter touch, giving actors time to enjoy the comedy when it lands, are just a few starting places that might help bring Body into alignment.

Body: Anatomies of Being runs through May 21 at New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher St. between Greenwich and Washington) in Manhattan. The show carries the warning “Bodies will appear in their natural state.” Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. on Sundays and at 7 p.m. Mondays. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased online at NewOhioTheatre.org or by calling 212-352-3101. 

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Fifty Shades of Activism

In Robert Lyons’ Death of the Liberal Class, directed by Jerry Heymann at the New Ohio Theatre, Nick, played with a self-deprecating aplomb by Steven Rattazzi, is a balding, pot-bellied academic who has written a book called "Robo Corp" that has garnered him great success after years of being an adjunct professor and a freelance journalist. However, after a “nervous breakdown” in which he rejects the ideas he has written about in the book—that robots will take over the world and that they are “standing on the precipice of the darkest period in history”—he has retreated to a farmhouse in Canada owned by his wife’s family.

His teenage daughter Andrea, played with a convincing mixture of indifference and righteousness by Jeanette Dilone, however, has dropped out of high school and followed him there. She has swallowed her father’s previous convictions hook, line and sinker, and has decided to pursue her own brand of activism, “hacktivism.” She is joined by the unassuming yet handsome Even, played by Justin Colon (who appears to have a magnificent singing voice revealed in one small snippet in the play) whom she has met online. The computer is the perfect tool for activism. Where it was once dangerous and possible to suffer bodily harm—think Kent State University in 1970 when four were killed and nine wounded in a melee between protesters and National Guard—computers have removed the physical component of activism and provided the safety of anonymity. Even and Andrea quietly, heads together, plan to take down the Robot Economy that her father has written about. The sexual tension is palpable even with their eyes glued to their respective keyboards.

Meanwhile, everyone is mad at Nick. He’s been sleeping with Maggie, the dewy skinned and wholesomely pretty Olivia Horton, who lives on the farm next door with her husband, and also with Daphne, his wife, when she comes to visit. Maggie’s husband beats her for sleeping with Nick and Daphne chides him for leaving New York City.

Although there is still sexual chemistry between them, Melissa Murray as Daphne captures the understated disdain that New Yorkers have for those who leave. After all, who, in their right mind, would leave an Upper West Side apartment in New York City? She may as well come out and say it: he’s a loser! But, somehow, living on the farm, in the middle of Canada has made Nick feel peaceful, and dare we say it, happy. In the opening scene, Nick’s daughter notes how happy he seems. When he retorts “I’m not allowed to be happy?,” she nearly chokes with disgust, “Not this happy!”

Nobody wants Nick to change, especially his daughter. Yet, he no longer believes in the chaotic world he wrote about in his book nor does he want to have anything to do with it. His daughter decides to carry out her own grassroots activism, and hacks into Maggie’s account. Comic relief comes unexpectedly in an exchange between Nick, his daughter, and Constable La Fontaine, a Canadian Mountie who works in the cyber division, played with wonderful restraint by the mustachioed Arthur Aulisi. When the Constable arrives at the farmhouse to investigate the hacking, they deny it. Although the Constable remains beautifully polite, it appears he knows better. It’s a moment filled with tension and irony.

Although we usually think of men as being better hackers, Andrea is actually the gifted hacker who plans to infect Wall Street computers with a virus that will bring them crashing down. Nick pleads with her, and asks her to see how it will affect the little people, but she is so full of her own—or rather Nick’s—ideological idealism that she runs off with Even to carry out the plan.

When Nick’s wife realizes he isn’t coming back to the city with her, she leaves and gives him an eviction notice from the farmhouse. In the beginning of the play, you wonder what Nick’s appeal is: he’s a middle-aged guy with thinning hair and a thickening middle who’s sleeping with two beautiful women. But then we see that it’s his underlying sensuality that makes him attractive. After he rejects his own lofty “liberal” ideas about the Robot Economy, he actually becomes more attuned to the world of living through the senses. At one point, his daughter comes to him, computer attached to her arm like an extra appendage, complaining she can’t get access. He gently says “access these trees… access the sky.”

Robert Lyons’ play asserts a very important message in this age of technology: that it can be both useful and destructive, but what it’s not, is sensual. Nick may be the underdog here, but in the end, he’s the one who is the true activist: being in tune with the senses is more likely to save humanity than anything else. The rest of the world around him needs a little more time to get there.

Death of the Liberal Class, written by Robert Lyons and directed by Jerry Heymann, runs through Feb. 13 at the New Ohio Theater (154 Christopher St., #1E between Greenwich and Washington Sts.) in Manhattan. Performances are Wednesday–Thursday at 7 p.m., FridaySaturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased by calling 1-888-596-1027 or visiting http://www.NewOhioTheatre.org.

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Fatalistic Fandoms

In the Ice Factory Festival’s run thus far, no play has managed to reconcile the New Ohio Theatre’s intimate space with the magnitude of its subject matter as well as George and Co.’s production of Holden. The wrathful claustrophobia that Holden emanates very quickly imbibes the audience itself, and we find ourselves shifting uncomfortably in our plush blue seats. But it doesn’t begin that way. We are lulled into enjoying the sarcastic dialogue, the self-aware movements of the actors and Billie Holiday’s sad voice, which croons occasionally as part of the play’s soundtrack. But this false security is made all the more frightening by the individual character revelations that slowly begin to transfigure and twist the production into an entirely unexpected and strangely arresting creature.

The set is an organic element of the story: its walls of chopped logs and floors of wood chips create a color scheme of unending amber brown. Typed-up sheets of paper hang from a clothes line. It is evidence that we are in a writer’s island. There is a spare cot, shelves stacked with books and a detective-like desk with a reading lamp, typewriter and magnifying glass. And everywhere, crumpled balls of paper litter the furniture and the floor. Holden already seems overly cramped in its setup, and we wonder how its actors will negotiate the space, but this is a calculated move on the part of scenic designer Nick Benacerraf.

Writer-director Anisa George notes that Holden exists “in an impossible time and place,” lending an otherworldly tint to the log bunker in which her story is set. Four figures lie sleeping in the darkness as crickets chirp drowsily outside. One man gets up, quietly turns on a reading lamp and opens up J.D. Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye. His name is Hinckley (Scott Sheppard) and he begins to retype the entire book, word for word, with a typewriter set in front of him until the tall, side-burned and bespectacled figure of Chapman (Jaime Maseda) stops him. Both Chapman and Hinckley are devotedly respectful to the pajama-clad, white-haired Jerry Salinger (Bill George), who wakes up from a war-torn nightmare (the real Salinger took part in the hellish storming of Normandy on D-Day), but Zev (Matteo Scammell) seems to be on equal terms with the author.

Zev, a serious young man in torn jean-shorts and a red flannel shirt is the "new guy," as Chapman and Hinckley derisively christen him. It is not until the closing stages of Holden that the two start calling him by his name. A little girl called Peggy (Adele Goldhader) is the only one who is able to enter and exit the bunker; she appears to be Salinger’s 10-year-old daughter, and keeps urging him to return to the rest of his family. But Salinger pays little attention to his environs, even completely disregarding his three bunkmates as he fusses and fumes with his writing.

As the play progresses, it becomes evident that Chapman and Hinckley are infamous men. The former is Mark Chapman, the man who killed John Lennon in 1980, and his compatriot is John Hinckley, Jr., the man who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan in 1981 (a sore point for him since he couldn’t "finish the job" as Chapman did). Both men were apparent lovers of The Catcher In the Rye, rationalizing their murderous intents with Holden Caulfield’s disdain for "phonies." Hinckley was famously obsessed with Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Taxi Driver, as George funnily references before she reveals the character’s true self, but still he and Chapman are scarily similar. When Jerry (in the play) writes down one sentence in a fit of inspiration and falls back asleep, his two fans are rendered speechless by his words: “In his mind, fulfillment meant loving a good woman and killing a bad man.”

George cleverly introduces her characters with relative anonymity. Maseda makes Chapman seem like a hyperactive publisher or agent, impatiently keen on the release date for Jerry’s new book. Sheppard renders Hinckley as a comically bumbling figure, interacting innocently with his environment. It is only Zev, played to ominous ferocity by a supremely talented Scammell, who remains unknown to us until the end. Why is he being held in this purgatory-like fan land with such company as Lennon’s killer and Foster’s stalker? He doesn’t even like Salinger, and thinks Holden is “kind of a loser” to the utter shock of his fellow bunkmates. We soon find that George has created an even more terrifying character in Zev, one especially menacing to the modern American. He is the nameless, unselective kind of killer who rejoices in the power of guns and in closed, packed places. Even Chapman and Hinckley are disgusted by him, and it is with a bloodcurdling, knowing shiver that we hear Zev’s words: “I don’t like people. I like maps...blue prints. I like to see where the entrances and exits are. Public places. Stadiums. Schools. Theaters.”

The audience is flooded with memories from the country’s collective consciousness: Sandy Hook Elementary, a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and a church in Charleston, South Carolina. We see the second generation of American violence in Zev, and it is an aimless, indiscriminate violence borne not out of emotion, but detached cruelty. Zev’s fight isn’t against "the phonies" like Chapman and Hinckley. His violence doesn’t require reason or impetus, but merely opportunity. This complete shift in tone and performance that quietly occurs halfway through the play is an unflagging testament to George’s intelligent directorship and riveting dialogue. Holden merits a visit, and it almost seems like a citizen’s requirement, as we remain mired in the sorrows of modern violence.

Holden ran from August 6-8 at the New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher St., #1E between Greenwich and Washington Sts.) in Manhattan. For more information, visit www.newohiotheatre.org.

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A Rave Gone Wrong

When the ancient Greek playwright and epic raconteur Euripides described the bacchanalian excess of the Maenads, Dionysus’ virginal followers, he leaves no doubt that it is an intoxicating affair: “With milk and wine and streams of luscious honey flows the earth, and Syrian incense smokes…” Karaoke Bacchae, Meta-Phys Ed.’s subversive production of the ancient Greek play, The Bacchae, at the New Ohio Theatre, takes intoxication to another dimension. Although supposedly written "in the style of Euripides," the play is set in the singular location of a karaoke bar on the night of the Stanley Cup final, where the avenging wine god Dionysus is to descend on his unfaithful mortal family (who refuse to worship him, understandably), incite them into drunken madness, and and force them to rip each other to pieces. Instead, we have a harmlessly roving rock 'n' roll god attempting to loosen up a strictly sober bartender, rather than your requisite tearing to pieces.

Euripides’ immortalized characters from The Bacchae have their mortal counterparts in director Jesse Freedman’s Karaoke Bacchae: a cruel, godly Dionysus is a glittering, ostentatiously pan-sexual Iggy Pop (neo-boylesque star James Tigger! Ferguson). The agnostically complex King Pentheus is transformed into a particularly uptight bar owner (Tim Craig) and the Maenads, Dionysus’ frenzied followers (Mehdya Fassi Fihri, Sheree Grate, Youn Jung Kim and Sarah Matusek), are perennially tipsy members of a college sorority. Pentheus’ courtly dissidents are Tiresias (Benoit Johnson) and King Cadmus (Don Castro); the former seems to cling to his classical self of a blind prophet, spewing serious monologues while his lordly friend Cadmus has become a lonely, mildly irritating drunk moaning into a microphone.

To call Ferguson’s performance of Iggy Pop as Dionysus overtly sexual would be to grossly understate the lewd, but nonetheless terrific power of said performance. His funnily ceremonious entrances and exits, no doubt taken from his flashy productions on the burlesque stage, take on an appropriately egomaniacal and deified importance. His utterly sober counterpart King Pentheus, played with serious frustration by Craig, chases the glittered-up god to no avail, whacking away at his once-quiet bar with a hockey stick. He tries shooing away Iggy’s Maenads, who are four recent inductees into a sorority. It’s a none-too subtle nod to the chug-happy, partying lifestyle of college Greek societies, but perhaps the only apt modern translation of the wine god’s female cult. At first, the girls are smilingly inappropriate with audience members, reclining and flirting on the laps of front row ticket-holders, but they soon turn into evil-spirited fanatics, screaming shrilly and dancing wildly, in much the same manner their ancient mythical analogues might have worshiped their god.

Scenic designer Michael Minahan has endowed the sports bar with a ping pong table, a massive screen showing the hockey final and the ubiquitous presence of red cups. A bevy of recognizable tunes stream out of loudspeakers, all karaoke favorites: the Grease soundtrack, Alicia Keys, Ike and Tina Turner, and The Clash. Cadmus holds the karaoke mic for most of the production (it is occasionally commandeered by a sorority girl) and pours his sad, drunken interpretation of The Bacchae into it. Tiresias, a barfly under the impression that he is a prophet, recites Euripides’ words over Cadmus’ voice with pointed determination. But the reverberation from the mic is more than slightly distracting, and Castro does little to subtract from the overall atmosphere of confusion.

The plot is almost non-existent; we dimly understand that Iggy Pop is trying to enlist the unsmiling bartender into his staggering, bleary-eyed ranks, that Cadmus is desperate to find a girl, and that those sorority girls are crazy, but the kind of crazy we’d like to hang out with for one night. Freedman’s aim is to give meaning to the madness of the philosophical alcoholic, and take sobriety down a peg with the unintelligible raves of sorority girls slurring their way through karaoke songs. Consequently, much of the play is babbling incoherence, borne out of Freedman’s intent to sober up his audience at the very end. And he delivers, quite astonishingly.

Ferguson steps up as Dionysus, in a shockingly unexpected last scene, revealing his divine self (in more ways than one) and decrying the seriousness with which we arrived at this play. To the ethereal tune of Prince’s "Purple Rain," Iggy Pop says, “You have got to be drunk. Always. That is everything. Just to keep from feeling the hideous weight of Time that’s breaking your back and pushing you down to your knees… you’ve gotta be drunk, non-stop.” These last scenes somewhat redeem the confused melee the audience has witnessed for the past hour and a half, but while it eases our curiosity and pushes our feel-good buttons, it doesn’t seem quite enough to save this rave of a play.  

The Meta-Phys Ed. production of Karaoke Bacchae ran from July 23-25 at the New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher St., #1E between Greenwich and Washington Sts.) in Manhattan. For more information, visit www.newohiotheatre.org.

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Losing the Plot

Of the three plays open to critics at the Ice Factory Festival this summer, Losing Tom Pecinka, staged at the New Ohio Theatre by Morgan Gould & Friends, is most given to playfulness. Even with the story’s grey backdrop of Tom's death (an immediately evident plot point), writer and director Morgan Gould is more intent on good-humored self-mockery. But even with the occasional laugh that this meta-humor elicits, Losing Tom Pecinka struggles to elevate its story, and regularly defuses its own comedic fireworks.

The story surrounds the event of the eponymous character’s passing, and the destructive attempts of his friends in coping with it. The character Tom Pecinka (whose ghost and flashback-version is played by Zack Segel) is named after a real-life founder of Morgan Gould & Friends, and we assume that the title is a play on the actual Pecinka’s move to the Yale School of Drama. Janice (Tommy Heleringer, pretty in a dress) is a guilt-ridden ex-girlfriend, constantly at odds with Kai (Christopher Geary), Tom’s bitter best friend. Ryan Pecinka (Amir Wachterman), brother of the deceased and funniest of the lot, suffers silently in his love for Janice.

Wachterman is the undeniable talent of the show, straining laughter from even the most confused situations. His fairly ingenious dress-up as a sweaty tennis player, complete with a white sweater tied around his shoulders, making love-stricken speeches to Heleringer’s Janice makes for an uproarious incongruity. Heleringer himself is a shrill delight, making do with Janice’s oftentimes puzzling situational comedy to great effect. The entire cast bubbles with an underlying humorous energy, but their fractured dialogue and the intractable intent of Gould to exercise her didacticism, crowd out any real comedy. The plot is threadlike at best; Gould focuses more on unveiling her satiric takes on comedic tropes and stereotypes she has found in theater.

Indeed, the point Gould tries to make is that theater, and entertainment in general, has fallen into dreary, acceptable routines. These are routines from which her audiences need to be jolted out of; hence her lackadaisical attitude towards public relations (as evidenced by the production's promo). But the primary fault of Losing Tom Pecinka resides in its stubborn insistence on such satire. A heated discussion between Ryan and Janice, which held some potential for good drama, devolved into a satirical scientific run-on, the kind Christopher Nolan or Steven Spielberg would be proud of.

Even these scenes struggle to take off. We are left wondering whether the ghostly Tom that appears to Kai after his death is a comedic poke at depictions of the afterlife in traditional theater (perhaps Hamlet’s ghost?) or a product of Kai’s dramatic, psychological breakdown. It is only at the very end of Losing Tom Pecinka that we finally understand Gould’s directorial intent. Since the plot is a bare canvas, only present to hold the entire production together, the ending loses its finality and importance. Even after a seeming resolution to the play (all the characters huddle around Tom's grave in nostalgic remembrance), they all abruptly break into song, in an ineffable attempt at satirizing the musical.

There are moments of real hilarity, however. The ending is a particular delight to watch, since we are now certain that they’ve been making fun of our seriousness all along. Pregnant pauses and audience interactions with the cast produce considerable audience laughter, especially towards the end. Abrupt changes in time and place heftily undercut the sometimes-awkward interactions between actors, and keep us curiously waiting for the next scene. The sexual tension between Heleringer’s Janice and Wachterman’s Pecinka is palpable, but never serious. Even the eponymous character’s death is rendered comical, somehow. Yet, a willful need to jerk its audience out of its seated stupor and be “not boring” makes Losing Tom Pecinka a parody of itself: to be new and exciting might not be so interesting after all.

Losing Tom Pecinka ran from July 8-11 at the New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher St., #1E) in Manhattan. For more information, visit http://www.NewOhioTheatre.org.

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