Opposites Attract a Solution

Hard and soft qualities and everything in the middle can characterize a man’s masculinity. Mark Borkowski’s two-act comedy The Head Hunter explores masculinity through the contrast of two cousins who take on life’s challenges. Late 30’s writer Casmir (Trenton Clark) and his rugged, older cousin Salvy (Jay Rivera) come from the same family but occur to be from two different worlds.

The production feels more like a family drama and takes place during a winter in Hoboken, New Jersey in Casmir’s outdated apartment. Casmir’s white refrigerator, stove, and oven could have been from the 1950s. The worn rug, antique writing desk and wooden chair with a missing wheel give the impression that Casmir has not left his apartment in years. Casmir’s bland clothes even looks like he sleeps in them and contrasts with Salvy’s new, stylish clothes. Salvy is also taller, stronger and has more facial hair compared with his younger cousin Casmir.  The two men do not appear or sound like they are from the same neighborhood.

Salvy challenges Casmir’s ability to stand up to a movie producer who has the rights to Casmir’s screenplay. Casmir mistakenly signed his rights away and does not have enough money to hire a lawyer. Casmir says, “You're right, I was desperate. I needed the money. I needed...the attention. Somebody was recognizin' me.” Casmir and Salvy conspire to get the rights back to Casmir’s script. Casmir prefers to take a polite, gentleman approach when faced with difficult situations and Salvy resorts to brute force. When Casmir finds out that Salvy is a head hunter who decapitates people for the mob, Casmir says, “No, how do we come from the same bloodline?” Salvy says, “What, you sayin' you better [than] me?! ‘Bloodline.’ Hey, don't forget, the same guy who made Christ also made the devil. So go figure. ‘Bloodline.’” Great dialogue like these lines can be heard throughout the play and the value of the production is in Borkowski’s writing.

The writing is worthy of traveling to other markets and easily relates to the modern world. The subject matter is not only limited to New York City and our current time but has universal meaning that can apply to future generations.  Borkowski’s writing sheds insight into the varying moral and ethical principles that people adhere by. Casmir says with great honor that his deceased father had pride and Salvy says, “Pride. I love that fuckin' word. Ya know what that word is? It's an excuse, another excuse for a man to keep himself down.” Casmir counters by stating that his father still had a conscience. Salvy later goes on to challenge Casmir’s masculinity and says, “'Cause [you're] soft. Your insides, they gettin' ripe. [You're] ready to be plucked. Forget that, you are plucked. Like a tomato. It hangs nobly on the tree. Whole and hard, as if it's sayin' don't fuck wit me. It gets soft, it falls off the tree and gets squashed. That's what happenin', my friend. You are getting squashed.” The dialogue is brilliant, authentic, thought-provoking and allows audiences to reflect on their own lives.

Director Richard Gekko has an opportunity to insert his own vision and interpretation of the material. It would be interesting to witness Gekko’s slant on the text. Gekko could also improve the overall pacing of the production. The Head Hunter struggles with timing and could be more intentional. For example, the intermission seems to go on too long and could be shortened. Likewise, when Casmir steps out onto the roof, audiences might start to wonder when Casmir will return. Lastly, Rivera could slow down and take some deep breaths before delivering his lines so his performance has time to sink in with audience members. On the other hand, Clark’s timing as Casmir was on point when he spoke and his performance did not feel rushed and scrambled.

When entering the Abingdon Theatre Complex, a poster for The Head Hunter is not visible. The Dorothy Strelsin Theatre is on the second floor and is not easily accessible via the staircase, but there is an elevator. The theater is intimate and audience members feel like they are sitting in the living room of Casmir’s apartment.

The Head Hunter is recommended for theatergoers who love great writing and appreciate seeing family members from different backgrounds coming together to solve a problem.  Borkowski captures the natural voice of a broken writer and his criminal cousin. Audiences are able to grasp where each character stands as the plot develops. The contrast between the characters is like looking at two sides of a coin. The vision is clear and the aim is accomplished. The writing carries the show and theatergoers will be keen to see any other productions that Borkowski writes.

The Head Hunter runs until Nov. 28 at The Dorothy Strelsin Theatre in the Abingdon Theatre Complex (312 West 36 St., 2nd Fl., between 8th and 9th Aves.) in Manhattan.  Evening performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and matinee performances are Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Advance evening tickets are $35 and matinee tickets are $20. To purchase tickets, call 212-868-4444 or visit SmartTix.com.

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No Pot of Gold

An 8,000-year-old Irish fairy is not to be mistaken for a leprechaun in James McLindon’s Comes a Faery. The production opens with a grown woman (Meghan St. Thomas) acting like an 8-year-old girl Siobhan as she plays with a doll and toy truck. Though it is noted in the script for “a very youthful-looking adult [to] play Siobhan,” the casting does not work. St. Thomas sounds and behaves like a whiny child and looks more like an adolescent who is at the beginning stages of puberty. The mismatch in casting distracts theatergoers from acknowledging St. Thomas’ solid performance and her ability to carry the production. The director Shaun Peknic could have taken the liberty to cast a younger woman to portray the child Siobhan. On the other hand, Josh Marcantel is well cast as the Irish fairy Seaneen. Comes a Faery attempts to capture the emotional and mental impacts that a child experiences when their mother is away overseas serving in the armed forces.

The play takes place in an apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the set design by Kyu Shin is modest and homely with a loveseat, lamp and nightstand. In the background appears to be a wooden stage with three boxes wrapped in beige paper that have light cursive writing. The brown coloring used for the wording is not dark enough to clearly understand what is written. The two large walls on the backstage appear to be a large book and they also have the beige paper with brown wording on them. The light and dark blue and white zebra print floor is distracting and it does not exactly match the blue and white blankets on the couch. The audience members were further distracted from the actors’ performances when a cockroach ran across the stage and St. Thomas killed it by dropping a book on the cockroach. Marcantel tried to sweep the dead cockroach under the stage with his foot, and the experience left a lasting impression with the audience.

Siobhan is fixated on seeing her mother again and is easily manipulated by Seaneen, who has convinced Siobhan that everyone in her life will leave her. Seaneen is never clearly defined as actually being a real, live fairy or Siobhan’s imaginary playmate. This is one example of how McLindon leaves it up to audiences to decide for themselves if Seaneen is real or not. The lack of clarity does not add much to the plot or Seaneen’s character development and actually creates confusion. Siobhan’s pediatrician Dr. Neery (Lori Kee) cannot clearly diagnose Siobhan’s condition or Siobhan’s relationship with Seaneen. When Seaneen convinces Siobhan to catch Dr. Neery on fire with a burning newspaper, Dr. Neery writes off Siobhan’s failed attempt and says, “That which doesn’t kill you makes for a great story later.”  Dr. Neery believes that Siobhan could be experiencing conduct disorder or possibly psychosis. Siobhan’s guardian and Aunt Katie (Michaela Reggio) thinks that it is normal for 8-year-old girls like Siobhan to have an imaginary Irish fairy as a best friend. Katie’s artist boyfriend Raphael (Benjamin Miller) is Siobhan’s only healthy, male role model and he appears to be the only person who can actually relate to her.

The value of the production rests in its opportunity to have a greater conversation about children who are raised by others while their biological parents serve in a war.  However, the lack of clarity and confusing casting has McLindon fall short in clearly delivering a message.  Simply leaving it up to theatergoers to decide what is happening or what the point is, suggests that the material is underdeveloped. The show runs for 120 minutes with an intermission and feels like it lags. A matured production will have theatergoers wanting more and not just waiting for the show to end so that they can go home.

Comes a Faery misses it mark and does not deliver to its full potential. The production would be much more powerful if St. Thomas were cast as Aunt Katie and a teenager played Siobhan. As strong performers, St. Thomas and Miller could compliment each other’s performances if they were paired together as boyfriend and girlfriend. Reggio portrays Katie as a victim of her own circumstances and instead of having theatergoers feel empathy for Katie, she occurs as annoying and tiresome to watch. Miller stands out in comparison to Reggio when they are partnered together. Miller’s energy feels like a sitcom actor. Comes a Faery is not recommended unless theatergoers are willing to overlook its shortcomings and focus on the dynamic performances by St. Thomas, Miller and Marcantel.

Comes a Faery runs until Oct. 24 at the New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher St. between Greenwich and Washington Sts.) in Manhattan. Evening performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased by calling 347-524-0514 or visiting www.nylonfusion.org.

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Fairy Tales with Scary Endings

German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are best known for writing Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and many other famous fairy tales. There was also a darker side to the Grimms’ earlier works that included child abuse, incest and anti-Semitism. The short stories in Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman echo the Grimms’ twisted side. The Pillowman takes place in a totalitarian state and deals with childhood abuse. The characters rarely experience a "Disney" fairy tale ending. Audiences are sure to be amused and horrified as this story unfolds.

The production opens with a proclamation from writer Katurian (Kirk Gostkowski) trying to weasel his way out of being tortured: “The only duty of a storyteller is to tell a story.” Detectives Tupolski (Deven Anderson) and Ariel (Paul Terkel) do not buy Katurian’s noble stand as a writer. Katurian recites one of his gruesome short stories The Tale of the Town on the River about a poor, little boy with no shoes who is bullied by the local children. One day the little boy offers a hooded driver a piece of the boy’s sandwich. The driver repays the boy by using a meat cleaver to cut off all of the boy’s toes on his right foot. The driver is supposed to be the Pied Piper and he is riding into the German town of Hamelin to lure away all of the children with his magical flute. Due to the boy’s missing toes, he is unable to walk as fast as the other children. The little boy is not taken away by the Pied Piper and becomes a Hamelin survivor.

Detectives Tupolski and Ariel claim they found the toes of a dead, Jewish boy in Katurian’s home.  The detectives assert there is a connection between the crippled boy in Katurian’s short story "The Tale of the Town on the River" and the Jewish boy’s death. A string of other child deaths could be tied to Katurian’s violent short stories. Out of the four hundred stories Katurian wrote, he says “maybe ten or twenty have children in [them].”  Audiences soon discover Katurian’s inspiration for these morbid stories in a film directed by David Rey. The film discloses the horrific abuse and neglect Katurian’s brother Michal (Kyle Kirkpatrick) experienced by their parents—which permanently left Michal “slow to get things.”

The value of this production is its ability to creatively show the effects of childhood abuse through the eyes of Katurian. As the main character and a family member, Katurian’s perspective is unique because he was never abused. His parents loved him and encouraged him to be a great writer. Audiences are able to connect with Michal’s suffering through Katurian’s love for his brother. Likewise, it is Gostkowski’s stellar performance as Katurian that carries this show.  Katurian appears clever and likable, and at the same time, he feels so slippery. Audiences are left wondering if Katurian is telling the truth or lying about the murdered children in his stories.

Anderson is not fully self-expressed and authentic in his portrayal of Detective Tupolski. Director Greg Cicchino could have Anderson face the audience more often and project his voice so that audience members can get related to Anderson’s character during his opening lines. Instead of gauging the audience’s approval of his performance, Anderson could be more powerful by fully stepping into his role as the lead detective. As Detective Tupolski’s partner, Terkel maneuvers through the action scenes seamlessly in his performance of Detective Ariel. When Terkel slams Gostkowski’s head against the wall, the audience gains a real sense of what it is like to live in a totalitarian state. However, Terkel’s frequent use of herbal cigarettes starts to become a distraction and eventually does not add to his character. Kirkpatrick’s performance as Katurian’s mentally challenged brother Michal adds comic relief when Michal goes on about having an itchy butt.

Production designer Aaron Gonzalez created a simple, gray set that feels like a cross between a makeshift jail cell and an abandoned office during the height of the Cold War. The Chain Theatre is a fresh, friendly, intimate space with a gallery exhibition in the lobby by Tyler Hughes. The seating is connected, and if someone in your row is fidgeting throughout the show, their movements can be felt by others sitting in the same row. There is also simulated gunfire during the production for those who are sensitive to noise.

If you have not had a chance to see a performance of McDonagh’s award-winning play The Pillowman, then this is an opportunity to do so. Since its first public reading at London's Finborough Theatre in 1995, the play has traveled around the world. The use of universal, childhood fairy tales allows for generations to easily connect with the material. It is McDonagh’s take on childhood abuse that is most startling and thought-provoking for audiences to discover.

The Pillowman runs until Oct. 3 at the Chain Theatre (21-28 45th Rd. between 21 and 23 Sts.) in Long Island City, Queens. Evening performances are Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and matinee performances are Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18 in advance and $20 at the door and can be purchased by calling 866-811-4111 or visiting www.variationstheatregroup.com.

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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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