Let Them Entertain You

"Sing out, Louise!" is one of the most identifiable and exciting lines in musical theater. Audience members nod with a knowing smile as it is shouted onstage, happily awaiting the thrill ride that follows over the next three hours. For those less versed in the canon, it should be said that those three words mark the entrance of one of the great theatrical characters of all time: Mama Rose, the mother of all stage mothers, in Gypsy.

St. Jean's Players, one of the city's best-kept secrets, is presenting a must-see production of this legendary show, based on the life of stripteaser Gypsy Rose Lee. Set during the vaudeville era, Gypsy follows Rose (Mary Anne Gruen) as she pushes her favored daughter, June, to show business success in one act after another. (Bridget Clark and Colleen Lis split the role between June's early and later years.)

Meanwhile, Rose's other daughter, Louise (Sonia Brozak and Hannah Fairchild also split the role), finds herself relegated to wallflower status onstage and also-ran at home. Rose will sacrifice everything to achieve vicarious success through her daughter, even marriage to her paramour, road manager Herbie (played by Alex Arruda, who displays an amazing baritone).

As Rose, Gruen is a marvel in a role that has become iconic after performances by such stars as Ethel Merman, Rosalind Russell, and Angela Lansbury. She's pushy as can be, but it comes from a very desperate place. It's almost impossible not to be moved when she laments, "I was born too soon and started too late!" during "Rose's Turn," her bravura number.

But Gypsy isn't just Rose's story; it is her daughter's as well. The show packs a lot of plot development into an overlong first act—this performance clocked in at nearly 100 minutes—and there isn't much that any theater company can do to get around that, as every scene is essential while we watch June and Rose mature. Director Bryan McHaffey boldly soldiers through this material. June, Rose's big hope, tires of being a puppet and runs away with one of the background dancers in her company. Never willing to be a victim, Rose decides to focus her attention on Louise.

As written, the show compresses too many character changes into its second act. Louise rebels in her own way, eventually becoming a world-famous strip artist. One cannot alter Arthur Laurents's book to make this arc more believable; a company can only rely on solid performances to connect the dots. As the older Louise, Fairchild does a great job covering those bases.

She and Lis also both prove to be amazing dancers and singers. The hallmark of any outstanding revival is that it highlights something new in the production, whether it's a scene, a musical number, or a different angle to the story. St. Jean's production does just that with the duet in the often overlooked song "If Momma Was Married," in which the characters long for a different kind of life, singing in beautiful harmony. But then, even the second-tier songs (by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim) are masterful, in a show that includes the classics "Some People," "Let Me Entertain You," "Together, Wherever We Go," and "Everything's Coming Up Roses."

Additionally, credit must be paid to Diane Collins, Rosalynd Darling, and Jennifer Hoddinott, who nail the naughty second-act showstopper "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" (and Hoddinott looks far different from her last St. Jean's role, as the prim Grace Farrell in Annie). Darling does double duty as clarinetist in the incomparable orchestra, which also includes Razy Jordan, Linda Blacken, and Harriet Levine.

I was curious to see whether St. Jean's could pull off Gypsy, and particularly if it could gear the show to its family-friendly audiences. The company did another sterling job, emphasizing that this is a show about families and how they get along through the best and worst of times. Clearly, I needn't have worried. As always, this company knows exactly what it is doing.

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Great Books, Live Onstage

Northanger Abbey, Theater Ten Ten's clever new play, merges the best of Jane Austen—engaging heroines and romantic plots—with the gothic suspense of Ann Radcliffe, an earlier, 18th-century English novelist. But playwright Lynn Marie Macy can't take all the credit: Austin's Northanger Abbey makes many references to Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. This modern production of Austen's book, directed by David Scott, takes those references off the page and plays them as actual scenes that are woven into Austen's story. The result is a vibrant interpretation of a classic. The stage is set for our journey into books, with richly bound, oversized copies of English literary masterpieces forming a backdrop and filling the stage. The gilded spines open and close to reveal the characters' entrances and exits. All of the staged action happens in front of yet another book. This smaller, illustrated volume takes us from the streets and ballrooms of Bath, England, to the eerie mountain castle of Udolpho, in Italy. Characters come by and turn the pages as each scene changes, transporting the audience back and forth between the two worlds.

Director David Scott ties the two books together even more by doubling the roles. The protagonist from one is also the protagonist in the other. The actors portray the same type of character—the love interest, the cad, the deceitful lady—in both stories. We begin to see the parallels between the "real" scenes (the plot of Northanger Abbey) and the "imaginary" ones (the parts of The Mysteries of Udolpho that are enacted onstage).

Our partner on this journey is Catherine Morland (Tatiana Gomberg), the heroine of Austen's novel. She travels from her country home to the wealthy resort town of Bath with family friends in order to experience the world, but she can't seem to keep her nose out of a book (that book is, of course, The Mysteries of Udolpho). In Bath, she tours the social scene, meeting the charming Henry Tilney (Julian Stetkevych), the coquettish Miss Isabella (Summer Hagen), and Isabella's roguish brother, John Thorpe (Timothy McDonough). With all her new acquaintances, Catherine's real-world romantic adventures start to compete with the exciting stories she's been reading. When she visits Northanger Abbey, she finds herself in a situation nearly as fantastic.

As Catherine, Tatiana Gomberg sparkles in every scene and makes for a vivacious heroine. Her Catherine is refreshingly three-dimensional: smart, clever, and capable. Her bold manner when speaking directly to the audience perhaps makes her not what Austen intended, but she's perfectly suited for modern audiences. She's so enthusiastic that we're happy to follow her wherever her fancies take her.

Gomberg is nicely supported by Summer Hagen as Isabella; the young debutante is delectably bratty and pouty. McDonough seemed to enjoy his role as Isabella's arrogant, blowhard brother, while Stetkevych is so delightful as Catherine's love interest Tilney that he left me wishing Austen had made the character more prominent in the novel.

The costumes, designed by Jeanette Aultz, are lovely period pieces; Aultz paid great attention to detail, even down to Miss Morland's undergarments. In many of the crowd and party scenes, the ensemble functioned as colorful, animated set dressings. The ladies and gentlemen of Bath were so well dressed that it was easy to overlook that some of them sped through their lines, making them almost unintelligible.

The second act dragged a little, though that flaw is more in the source material than in Macy's script. A pantomimed scene of Catherine's midnight encounter with the wild, imaginary horrors lurking in Northanger Abbey was so wonderful that the remainder of the play paled in comparison.

As Catherine discovers, reading a book can't beat live experiences. This energetic production is a perfect example. Theater Ten Ten's adaptation of Northanger Abbey brings new life to what is considered one of Austen's lesser-known works while showcasing a lesser-known writer whose work made this 19th-century classic possible.

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Seeing Through

In the 1940's, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted their famous "Doll Test," in which young black children were given four baby dolls (identical except for color) and instructed to select the dolls that they preferred. Most of the children favored the white dolls, and the Clarks' astonishing findings were later used as evidence in the landmark 1950 anti-segregation case Brown v. Board of Education. Adapted for the stage with wit and grace by Lydia Diamond, Toni Morrison's classic 1970 novel The Bluest Eye explores a tumultuous and troubling rift between what we are and what we hope to be. The Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theater Company's production of the book, set in Morrison's own hometown of Lorain, Ohio, circa 1941, has been brought to New York by the New Victory Theater, and it resonates with both startling anguish and irrevocable truth. Most important, it bursts with life and an imperative story. Intended for young audiences, this resplendent and compelling play, about 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove's quest for blue eyes, should be required watching for everyone.

The rhetoric of the popular "Dick and Jane" books frames The Bluest Eye, as Pecola totes around a book extolling the untarnished, lily-white lives of a stable family so different from her own. As the play begins, she reads aloud from her book, and the rest of the cast slowly joins in, creating a confusing muddle of undistinguishable words. Clipped sentences—"Father, will you play with Jane? Father is smiling. Smile, Father, smile."—are the basis of this overly simplified, impossibly idealistic story that devolves into ugly noise—a cacophony of voices that drowns out Pecola's plaintive tones.

On Stephanie Nelson's effective, multilevel set, which is strung with clotheslines teeming with laundry in shades of rose and beige, the action springs back and forth in time to flesh out Morrison's complex characters. Frieda and Claudia, two sisters who are Pecola's neighbors and friends, narrate much of the story. They rarely leave the stage, and their presence as young witnesses gives Pecola's experiences added significance.

Pecola, we learn, has become pregnant with her father's baby, but we shouldn't expect to discover why. Instead, "since why is difficult to handle," Claudia warns, "one must take refuge in how."

And so Morrison begins to gently trace the players and events that accumulate to form Pecola's tragedy. Most centrally, there is her father, Cholly, an angry and vicious man who was abandoned as a baby and sexually exploited by white men, and her mother, Pauline, who lavishes loving words on the young white girl where she works but forces her own daughter to refer to her as "Mrs. Breedlove."

Even when Pecola steps out of her chaotic home, she faces the disdainful glare of the drugstore clerk, the chiding of neighborhood gossips, and, most poignantly, the white, blue-eyed visage that reminds her of everything she lacks. Pecola fastens onto this likeness—as embodied by Shirley Temple, pale plastic dolls, and, most animatedly, her well-groomed classmate Maureen Peal—and fervently believes that when God grants her blue eyes, she will be loved and no longer invisible.

Director Hallie Gordon has shaped a haunting and intriguing production, rendering horrific events (particularly incest and rape) without graphic display; instead, characters simply speak Morrison's words to relate these events. The imagination is a powerful thing, Gordon reminds us, and we are left to fill in the gruesome blanks.

The magnificent cast is anchored by the steadfast Alana Arenas, whose sweet, genuine voice is tinged with hope as she reveals Pecola's vulnerability and quiet determination. Monifa M. Days and Libya V. Pugh offer plucky and thoughtful characterizations of Frieda and Claudia, while Chavez Ravine and Victor J. Cole turn in nuanced portrayals of Pecola's sparring parents. TaRon Patton, as Frieda and Claudia's feisty and fussy Mama, nearly steals the show every time she takes the stage. Spouting love and criticism at lightning speed (and with crackling humor), she is the very personification of tough love.

Diamond has wisely kept much of Morrison's poetic language intact to glorious effect, as when Claudia ruminates on the love that thrives in her household, even under the thumb of her gruff Mama: "I could smell it—taste it—sweet, musty, with an edge of wintergreen in its base. It stuck, along with my tongue, to the frosted windowpanes."

And love—of any kind—is what Pecola lacks. Morrison's novels endure in part because she gathers up so much humanity to patch together asymmetrical characters who overflow with heart, soul, and extreme desperation. And although Morrison claims to offer us only the "how" of what happened to Pecola, the "why" hangs over these events, tangled up with the characters' lives and stories, including everything that came before and everything that will follow.

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Without a Net

One of the most exhilarating workouts in the city isn't to be found in any gym or Spinning class. Instead, it can be found at the Barrow Street Theater, where Tim Crouch's one of a kind production, An Oak Tree, is moving audiences and enlightening acting students all at once. Oak Tree stems from a fascinating conceit. Ostensibly, it is the story of two men: a grief-stricken father who has recently lost his daughter in a car accident and a stage hypnotist (Crouch) who was the car's driver. The twist is that a different guest actor (sometimes a male, sometimes a female) plays the father's role every night. Moreover, he or she meets Crouch only moments before show time and knows nothing about the plot or the character. Right in front of them, the audience members see Crouch instructing the actor about the performance. (Besides writing and starring in the show, he co-directed it with Karl James and a smith.)

This kind of acting without a net is nothing short of thrilling. At the performance I was privileged to see, F. Murray Abraham, the Academy Award-winning star of Amadeus, played the father. Just watching him absorb the task ahead of him, steeling himself and simultaneously tapping into his actorly resources to create a character in no time, was an education in trust—both in his own abilities and in what Crouch had in store.

In addition to the directions given in front of the audience, Crouch whispers directions into earphones so that only the guest performer can hear them. Besides appearing as himself and the father, Abraham portrayed a version of himself commenting on the play. Crouch thus intersperses the action occasionally with several faux interviews, with the actor sometimes speaking candidly and sometimes merely pretending to do so, reading answers off a clipboard.

This is not improvisation, or theater sport; Crouch has actually wound the production of Oak Tree quite tight. He gives his guest performer the freedom to create the character he or she feels is appropriate, but he ultimately controls the direction and tone the evening takes. The show has no cheap tricks or surprises. The emotions that Abraham undergoes as the father and that Crouch has as the hypnotist (whose powers have been impaired since the accident) are always genuine.

There was never a time when Abraham didn't look anguished. At certain moments, when Crouch appeared to successfully hypnotize the father, Abraham looked spellbound, convinced that he had shed his clothing and soiled himself, among the many acts the hypnotist called on him to do. And he did it all without missing a beat. Rehearsed performances are often less fluid than this, which just may be the show's point.

It is important not to downplay the importance of Crouch's role. He is the fulcrum on which the entire performance rests, and while one gets nervous for Abraham or whoever else the guest performer that evening may be, his job is even trickier. Crouch must guide the performance and be prepared for many different reactions from his scene partner. He remains engaging, empathetic, and confident throughout, thus earning the audience's trust that the show will appear polished and professional.

But his piece goes beyond that: it reveals truths about human nature and an actor's nature. One can only guess what other brave actors will jump into the hot seat as the show's run continues, but one thing is for sure: rewards abound for actor and audience alike.

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Women should be sexy but not have sex, a wife shall be submissive, men like stupid girls, bleach blonde is "in," and if you dress like a slut men will treat you like one. These are just a few of the many mixed messages the media sends to young girls every day. Some roll their eyes and choose to ignore them, while others listen carefully and take them to heart. In Jessica Lynn Johnson's solo show, Oblivious to Everyone, we meet a pretty young woman in her late 20s named Carrie who is completely immersed in the ever-changing world of pop culture. Like its main character, Oblivious to Everyone has a silly, shallow appearance but a surprisingly deep, emotional core. When Carrie first stumbles onstage wearing giant bug-eyed glasses, a tight, low-cut shirt, and pants with the word "Juicy" scrawled across the rear, it seems the play will follow the same winning formula as the popular MTV show Newlyweds, focusing its comedy on the hilariously stupid thoughts and antics of a beautiful girl. However, appearances are deceiving both within the play and in the initial perception of it.

After setting down her shopping bags, Carrie hangs up her cellphone, chirping, "Love ya, mean it, bye," and smiles flirtatiously at the audience members, who collectively assume the role of a psychiatrist. She says she does not know why her friends and family want her to see a doctor, but for some strange reason they are suddenly embarrassed to be seen with her.

This reason is soon revealed. Carrie has a tendency to break into multiple personalities, mainly ones she has seen on various television programs. Sometimes she is an abusive Bible Belt husband from the Jerry Springer show, and other times she is an adult film star who has been waiting all her life to be on the Howard Stern show. But Carrie has no idea that these other personalities exist.

Johnson does an amazing job of abruptly switching from one extreme character to the next. Each new persona completely swallows up her original one, leaving no traces of the Paris Hilton wannabe that was just sitting in the doctor's chair. But even with the believable mannerisms and dialogue of each alter ego, it is Carrie who has the most dimensions. There is a deeply scarred woman beneath her perky, smiling exterior whom we catch only glimpses of throughout the show. Still, these peeks into something more than a culture-junkie airhead are what keep you glued to the unfolding drama.

Carrie's personalities are not so much an illness as they are a symbol of the repressed person who lives inside her. She is so influenced by other people's thoughts and opinions that she can no longer tell where they end and she begins. Her alter egos express the lonely, vulnerable, and insecure aspects of her personality that she is too afraid to acknowledge.

Because of these multiple personalities, Johnson labels her play a serio-comedy, but it is also an important social commentary with a message that should not be taken lightly. After all, popular media icons for young girls currently include Paris Hilton, someone who makes a living out of partying and behaving badly, and Jessica Simpson, who found fame in acting stupid.

Oblivious to Everyone combines all the shows, sound bites and mixed messages young girls receive every day to create a frightening picture of what popular American culture has become. Fortunately, it also provides hope that beneath every Paris Hilton clone is a young girl whose longing for self-expression will one day shine through. After much soul searching, even Carrie comes to realize that although the occasional guilty pleasure is O.K., the real world is more than just a show on MTV.

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Under Siege

Following his release from prison in Czechoslovakia in 1985, Vaclav Havel took just four days to write Largo Desolato, his semi-autobiographical play about a dissident philosopher paralyzed by his fear of being imprisoned once again and by the outsized expectations of his countrymen awaiting his next words. While communist totalitarianism may be a thing of the past, and Havel would go on to become his country's president for 13 years, his play remains deeply resonant for our own age of anxiety, surveillance, and liberty challenged.

The Tyna Collective's trenchant production, in a fine translation by fellow Czech Tom Stoppard, is part of a six-week, 16-play festival of Havel's work timed to coincide with the playwright's 70th birthday and a brief residency at Columbia University. Director Eva Burgess teases out the play's black humor while never losing sight of its seriousness of purpose. To the play's obvious debts to the theater of the absurd, Burgess adds touches of Brechtian artifice, such as the seating of the actors in the front row when they are not onstage.

The play unfolds on David Evans Morris's fanciful set, which consists of a spare living room with four stand-alone doorways at back leading out to the entryway, the balcony (denoted by a plant and a painting of a blue sky), the bathroom, and the rest of the apartment.

Professor Leopold Nettles, author of Ontology of the Human Self and Phenomenology of Responsibility, has retreated to his apartment, suffering from writer's block and quaking at each ring of the doorbell. Nettles is not even able to articulate his own state of alienation, instead parroting the description offered by a concerned friend. When "they"—a bumbling duo of secret police—finally do arrive and offer him "a once in a lifetime chance for a fresh start" if he will disown his former identity, the offer appeals to him since he no longer recognizes himself in the husk of a man he has become.

Largo Desolato, with its minimalist plot and masterfully orchestrated repetition of scenes, dialogue, and situations, calls for a formal rigor in its execution. Burgess delivers by guiding her cast toward tight, disciplined performances and by coaxing a clean and uncluttered aesthetic from her design team.

In the demanding lead role, Erik Kever Ryle achingly communicates Nettles's growing despair and impotence while also conveying the charisma and sparkling intelligence that would have garnered him such attention in the first place.

The rest of the cast is uniformly stellar. Joshua Briggs and Jon Okabayashi are hilarious as the sneezing, daft detective and his even more clueless partner. Another delightful comic duo are Janet Ward and Skyler Sullivan, with mirroring performances as the tall and short Sidneys from the local paper mill, who declare themselves fans of Nettles and bear down on him to fulfill his obligations to ordinary people like themselves.

Martin Lopez's simply cut, vivid costumes, Juliet Chia's full, steady lighting, and Ken Hashimoto's striking musical punctuation hew tightly to the overall style.

During this fraught moment in our own country's history, it is fitting to revisit the lifework of a distinguished playwright who so seamlessly wedded politics and morality. There may be no better introduction to Havel's work than this incisive staging of a work that's considered to be one of his greatest plays.

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Me and Beelzebub

If theater is about surprises, then good theater is about pleasant surprises. To those who go to see Algonquin Productions's presentation of The Devil and Billy Markham, prepare to be pleasantly surprised. The first surprise is that the show is performed not in a traditional theater space but in a sexy, low-lit lounge. Small cafe-sized and rectangular tables sit close together and within whispering distance of a bar serving drinks during the performance and afterward, for those who want to linger. Serving as the playing space is an open-mike setup at the front of the room, with a guitar and drums.

The second surprise is that the show's text, derived from an epic poem by Shel Silverstein, is less reminiscent of Silverstein's tender children's books, such as The Giving Tree, and more like a country music song. (The poem was first printed in a 1979 issue of Playboy.) The poem tells the story of a Southern man, Billy Markham, who loves to take all bets, and the Devil, who loves to make Billy miserable. Despite the fact that the odds are stacked heavily in Beelzebub's favor, the story is equal parts darkness and light, as Billy learns how to play the Devil's game—and to even beat him at it.

The third surprise is that this one-man show is one entertaining hour of theater. From the moment Britt Herring swaggers through the crowd and onto the stage, his Storyteller character captivates the audience through his portrayals of the dim and down on his luck Billy, the clever, cajoling Devil, and a few other colorful characters who come across their path. With only a guitarist, a percussionist, and a slick lighting design (courtesy of Evan Purcell) to back him up, Herring's dramatic baritone provides all of the scenery and special effects a theatergoer needs to visualize this fantastic tale.

As he struts and sweats his hour upon the stage, switching from character to character, Herring impresses with his commitment, memory, and stamina. Through the use of accents and posturing, he easily differentiates his characters and changes them with ease. Instead of scene changes, there are pauses between chapters of Billy's story for Herring to grab a drink or show off his harmonica-playing skills. He doesn't make it look easy to do a show by oneself, but he sure makes it look fun.

Some productions have Broadway aspirations, and some simply aspire to be staged and seen. A show like The Devil and Billy Markham is too compact in length and scope for a big stage, but it's just right for the Huron Club. Surprises can come in all sizes, and at all venues.

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Hammers and Chocolates

In The Quotable Assassin, the second play in Love, Death and Interior Decorating at Altered Stages, Simon Dubanev says he is "a man who believed not in himself but in a cause." But then, they say that the personal is political. Although The Quotable Assassin is concerned with the experience of a European revolutionary condemned to death, we never really learn too much about Simon's life before prison, other than he was a history teacher who killed the king. Like the evening's first one-act, Walls, the play actually unveils a romance complicated by its characters' inability to move past their psychological barriers. How much we're expected to consider these two works a complementary duet—the program describes them as "an evening of two distantly related one-acts by Keith Boynton"—I'm not sure. Halfway through Walls, Gail, who is renovating her deceased, and much beloved, father's house, hangs a lamp that also lights the second play—which like its counterpart centers on one male and one female character. And there are some other parallels. But by the time The Quotable Assassin—an elegantly executed pearl of a play—was finished, I found myself wondering whether the first piece should have been included.

In Walls a house under construction—mostly consisting of blue walls and doorways, and one wall covered in the posters of Gail's childhood—is the setting where Gail, in a sharp, no-nonsense performance by Joan Kubicek, and her past love Carter (Mike LaVoie) are doing renovations. Despite having previously left without explanation, Carter earnestly proclaims that he loves her still. LaVoie grows into inhabiting his character, an impulsive, intellectual clown—"I like myself OK. But I enjoy myself immensely." Boynton, who also directs the play, smartly has the characters play the whole stage, squatting and sitting on the floor when there are no chairs, and tempering what is ultimately too much talking around the point.

Boynton, a recent college graduate, already displays a great ear for realistic, intelligent, and witty dialogue, and he occasionally locates real poignancy—is there anything as awkward as one person singing "Happy Birthday" alone from start to finish? But although Gail hands off pieces of paper to Carter as resolutely as if she were brandishing a weapon, the stakes just don't seem as high as the characters would have us believe. And while the ending is cleverly constructed, it's also a little too contrived to pack an emotional punch.

Unlike the contemporary Walls, The Quotable Assassin is a period piece set in a prison cell in a "fictional European nation." Not long after Lucia, the novelist who interviews Simon for research, first enters his cell—which is not much more than a bed—she tells him, "I intend to look very closely indeed. I intend to peel your soul like a grape, Mr. Dubanev, until every little vice and neurosis and secret grudge and infantile hope lies bare and dry before me like a prehistoric skeleton."

While the intricacies of Simon's soul are never really revealed to us, the play does show how the two characters understand each other. Simon tells Lucia that of all her novels, he particularly likes the one that "is really about you," and we know from the expression on her face that he has her pegged.

Though neither the script nor the direction is perfectly structured—the last two scenes seem to contradict each other too rapidly, and the text at times stretches itself too thin—it's ultimately a pleasure to watch. Director Sandra Boynton stages the piece quite gracefully (and for those of you parents or nannies, yes, this is the well-known children's author, and also the playwright's mother). Lucia's parade of costumes and the interludes of chanting choirs between scenes also bring an unlikely beauty to the stark setting.

Keith Boynton holds his own as Simon, but the production is most fortunate to have Roya Shanks, who gives a delightfully meticulous and vibrant performance as Lucia. Both characters turn out to be surprises in their own ways. In particular, Lucia proves herself to be more than the superior, sheltered novelist who hands Simon both a stay of execution and a box of chocolates as an incentive to let her interview him in their first meeting. In fact, she turns out to be near heroic in her persistent belief "in something finer than causes and movements." And the play is likable for the same reason.

It may seem strange to say that a young playwright navigates the world of a political assassin with more aplomb than the world of Walls's two twenty-somethings. But sometimes you need to step away from something, in time or location, to really see it clearly.

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Post-'Streetcar' Stanley

As I'm sitting in the second row, taking mental notes on an impressively kinetic performance, a bucket of water is thrust into my hands. I'm asked—no, commanded—by this man, performer, character, this animated metaphor of want, desire, and energy, to throw the water in his face. He is so dynamic, there's no way to refuse. I grab the bucket and douse him. Who is he? The obvious answer is "Stanley," but that serves mostly to introduce the many Stanleys and the ever-shifting nature of their identities in Stanley (2006). But fear not; in the capable hands of co-creators Lisa D'Amour (text and direction) and Todd D'Amour (performer), multiplicity becomes a virtue.

Stanley (2006) is a contemporary Stanley Kowalski, the brash brother-in-law antagonist to Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. This lusty, working-class figure has seeped into popular consciousness, largely due to Marlon Brando's portrayal in the 1951 film. So while all revivals and adaptations necessarily shoulder history, bringing Stanley Kowalski to an audience means excess baggage. Rather than shirk it, the sibling creative team of Stanley (2006) takes it on, transforming potential extra weight into substance.

So who is the man demanding to be drenched? First, he is a man, and he has hungers—metaphorically evident in both Williams's text and Lisa D'Amour's when Stanley tosses a package of meat to his eagerly awaiting wife, Stella. In all incarnations, Stanley exudes virility, and D'Amour's direction aptly takes advantage of the intimate theater space to ensure that the audience knows who the man of the house is. Todd D'Amour delivers a performance of driving physicality, and his dangerously brooding masculinity is crucial to the role and precisely conveyed.

His Stanley prepares to deliver a motivational lecture on losing everything and still coming out on top, "from a man who knows." After all, he's a post-Streetcar Stanley; Stella has taken their child and deserted him. But it's not Stella whom he desires—it's Blanche. No matter that Williams's Stanley raped her and had her carted off to a sanitarium; this Stanley claims he fell in love with her during the rape, and he's now on a quest to find her. And we believe him.

The motivational lecture concept provides a structure that accommodates the video (both prerecorded and live), text (not "lecture-y" at all), and movement that demonstrate Stanley's tragically passionate commitment to this quest. All these elements gel admirably. And while the character may be searching for Blanche, the audience members are on a search for Stanley.

Projected on a 9-by-12-foot screen behind the main playing space is video of Stanley's quest, conceived by video designer Tara Webb. Todd D'Amour is seen silently searching through ravaged city landscapes and rural ones, accompanied by Jeremy Wilson's sound design, which pays homage to the expressionistic soundscape that's specified in Williams's Streetcar text. The siblings D'Amour are from New Orleans and say their deep connection with the city formed one of this project's emotional foundations. Hurricane Katrina's destruction of the city, a devastatingly timely coincidence, adds another layer of significance to this Stanley's quest.

Yet another Stanley is Brando's interpretation from the movie. Fittingly, D'Amour takes on the identity of Brando-as-Stanley at various points. The uncanniness of his Brando yields deserved titters, but the presentation functions on a level deeper than impersonation for its own sake.

Webb, as the Camera Operator, also interacts with D'Amour. Poised on the stage's periphery, she supplements his live performance and the prerecorded search video with a live video feed that provides a visual intimacy with the performer's body and facial expressions, as only a camera and a large screen can. Yet those images are seen in the context of Jeremy Wilson's set—the playing space is a makeshift lecture hall, surrounded by debris, junk, and theater equipment that's artfully arranged to seem hastily cluttered. The audience's attention is drawn to the larger-than-life video images, only to find it pulled back, again and again, to D'Amour's often literally in-your-face performance.

Then there's Brando's portrayal as a touchstone of Method acting, a style where the performer uses emotional memory and personal experience to create a character, ideally making character and actor virtually indistinguishable. D'Amour's demand to be drenched during his climactic attempt to find Stanley's character demonstrated his facility with the Method's tools. Yet with this character many times refracted, the Method's relevance to contemporary experimental theater is called into question.

The man soaking wet is easily identified as Stanley—but he is also many Stanleys. Todd D'Amour is a performer in search of the character, but Lisa D'Amour is just as much a seeker: a writer and director in search of a performer in search of Stanley. In the end, whether Stanley finds Blanche is less important than the fact that we've found him, in an entertaining and intelligent work of theater.

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Meeting of Minds

There are few regional, university, or community theaters that have not produced the absurdist comedy Picasso at the Lapin Agile, a casual encounter between Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso sprung from the wild and irreverent imagination of Steve Martin. A cinematic version is even in the works, tentatively scheduled for a 2008 release. Now in its sixth season, the Astoria Performing Arts Center has brought Martin's play to Queens in a compelling and sharply rendered production. Since it opened its doors, the APAC has hopscotched around the neighborhood; currently, it has a temporary home in the Brocolli Theater at the Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens, and set designer Michael P. Kramer has convincingly transformed one corner of a bare gymnasium into a warm and well-worn Parisian cafe circa 1904.

In this fanciful and intriguing script, Einstein and Picasso meet and exchange ideas on the eve of major watershed moments in their careers—in 1905, Einstein would publish "The Special Theory of Relativity," while Picasso painted his famous "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon" in 1907.

It's a testament to both Martin's brilliance and battiness that he would choose to juxtapose a scientist and a painter; ostensibly, head would meet heart, reason would meet spontaneity, and sparks would fly. Instead, these dualities are complicated as the men speak of celebrity, intellect, and cultural significance. And when a mysterious visitor, who looks an awful lot like Elvis Presley, appears late in the show, he further challenges established notions of perpetuity, fame, and fortune.

Rather than map out a simple two-sided argument, Martin has filled his supporting cast with a host of eccentric and incendiary characters. There's Freddy, the acerbic proprietor, and his sharp-tongued girlfriend, Germaine; Suzanne, a winsome young girl who arrives with a drawing that Picasso gave her after a romantic liaison; Sagot, an over-the-top art dealer in a sparkly cape; Schmendiman, a would-be genius in an oversized bowtie; and Gaston, a regular patron who makes intermittent comments about sex and other bodily functions. "Why do all the nuts show up in one evening?" he wonders as he lumbers toward the toilet.

Under Lawrence Lesher's efficient direction, this production pops with energetic verbal interchanges. The opening expository scenes could use a bit more snap, but when Sagot sashays in with a miniature Matisse in tow, the conversation immediately becomes more pointed.

Martin's writing is certainly sophisticated, but its humor is often elusive, as if written to please the author, not the audience. But if the proceedings are not always laugh-out-loud funny, Martin manages to pull off moments of exemplary wit. At the end of a particularly incomprehensible outburst, Schmendiman adds, "No pun intended." "No pun achieved," Freddy dryly corrects him.

Martin is also quick to question the limitations of the theatrical form. The play was written in 1993, before audiences became glutted with such devices, and these self-aware asides and winks at the audience ("Yes, dear audience, we the actors know that we are doing a play") were certainly more novel then than they are now. And yet, even as Martin challenges the form, he also manages to endorse it.

As Sagot shows off his tiny Matisse, he points to the frame as its most important feature: "Otherwise, anything goes. You want to see a soccer game where the players can run up into the stands with the ball and order a beer? No. They’ve got to stay within the boundaries to make it interesting. In the right hands, this little space is as fertile as Eden." The boundaries of a stage, then, can also be liberating.

In the excellent cast, Jimmy T. Owens is particularly splendid as the melodramatic Sagot, while Alex Pappas and Meryl Bezrutczyk imbue Freddy and Germaine with the perfect amount of tart domesticity. Timothy J. Cox gives an inspired and explosive comic performance as the loony Schmendiman. Lean and lank with a shock of dark hair and a bushy, stand-alone moustache, Jordan Kaplan makes an amiable and slightly unhinged Einstein.

Only Rafi Silver struggles a bit in his rendering of Picasso. True, it's not the best-written role—at times, Picasso comes off as little more than a marauding womanizer—but Silver doesn't reveal much depth behind his passionate gaze.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile would seem to be an ideal opener for the APAC. Although it is often produced, the play is perpetually alluring for communities of artists. And as Astoria becomes a home for more and more creative types, they will eventually surface to debate issues of art and culture. One cafe, the Waltz-Astoria, has already opened its doors to area artists, sponsoring live musical performances and poetry readings in the hopes of creating a vibrant community. At this moment, a future Picasso or Einstein might be sipping a glass of Greek wine.

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Puppets and Bureaucrats

"Isn't this a very formal norm?""Actually, it's a very normal form."

When you hear that, you might be forgiven for thinking you've arrived in the realm of Lewis Carroll or Dr. Seuss. You'd also be wrong. The Garden Party takes place in Czechoslovakia, circa 1963, as interpreted by Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who, after some time in prison, became the Czech Republic's first president. Presented in a double bill with the short puppet-play The Mistake, The Garden Party opens the Havel Festival, a series of plays and lectures commemorating Havel's present residency in New York and his 70th birthday.

In The Garden Party, young, introverted chess whiz Hue Plume (James Bentley) shares his house with silent, parlor-dissident hippie brother Mark (John Kohan) and their zany, toadying parents (Michael Marion). Hue plays chess by moving the pieces on one end of the board, then switching chairs and playing for the other side. He's adept at switching viewpoints as needed. "Not so good, Dad—it sucks," he comments; then, switching to the other side of the board, "Kicking ass, Mom—checkmate!"

Dad sends Hue to an office party at "the Downsizing Office" to network with a family friend, who is evidently a neighborhood bully who grew up to be a paid bully. At the party, Hue meets Frank Slug (David Nelson), a member of the Speakers Bureau, who has come to assure the workers that they had better be enjoying themselves.

Nelson absolutely steals the show. A jumpy, zany actor, he screeches most of his lines, and his style suggests Alan Cumming. Bentley provides a strong contrast, giving an understated, deadpan performance while delivering his nonsensical dialogue at a rapid-fire pace. Before long, Hue is using his chess skills to climb the dizzying heights of communist bureaucracy—taking the audience along for a hysterical tour.

The costumes, designed by Meredith Neal, combine 1950's kitsch with Alice-in-Wonderland colors and crinolines. The knee pants and stockings of the bureaucrats make them resemble 18th-century courtiers, which may be the point.

The set, by Heather Wolensky, is pure domestic realism, and there is a bit too much of it. It includes a shaky iron gate that remains onstage during the indoor scenes; chairs that turn into trees once branches are planted in them; and a large painting of what appears to be Havel that Mark inexplicably paints right in front of his parents' noses.

The creation of a chessboard using a gobo-fitted light is creative, but an extremely long set change is required between the last two scenes, which the audience must watch from the seats because the Brick Theater has no lobby. While the set was being changed, I heard at least five loops of the recorded music, which, while charming, quickly became monotonous.

The piece's greatest strength is Havel's wordplay, in Jan Novak's new translation. The dialogue appears to have been updated, as the characters read e-mail and mention Ray Bradbury's anti-censorship novel Fahrenheit 451. However, from the creativity-deadened characters' mixed clichés ("If you can't stand the heat, no use crying out a river") to a very funny sequence in which two frightened bureaucrats trade repetitive banalities with the threatening Slug, Havel's nonsense sounds timeless. "Today it is action, not words, that speaks volumes," one character declares. It will have to be, when routine and fear have so paralyzed the speech of even the experts from the Speakers Bureau.

The Mistake, translated by Carol Rocamora and Tomas Rychetsky, is a funny, then chilling, vignette of life in prison, here adapted as puppet theater. An unnamed prisoner makes the "mistake" of taking a morning smoke, which is distinctly against protocol. His cellmates attempt to teach him the rules, but he refuses to accept or acknowledge them, or even move. Then things get disturbing. It's a short but effective parable about how people who have given up resisting conformity are threatened by someone quietly doing what Havel has called "living in truth."

Puppetry has a long and healthy history in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, and has often been used to convey social commentary and satire. This puppet show, however, was rather wooden. Until the final moments, the puppets merely shook their arms at each other; two were inexplicably tied together back to front, and the puppet representing the silent rebel was conspicuously attached to the puppet stage by a stick. The moment of violence was flimsy and excited neither fear nor pity. The dialogue, voiced by Joe Beaudin, Daryl Brown, and David Nelson, would have made a powerful radio drama.

It is wonderful that the Brick, in tandem with the other Havel Festival venues, is presenting all of Havel's plays to American audiences. The full list, along with a timeline and other useful materials that add context, are included in the festival program. Havel's words, when active, definitely speak volumes.

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This Is Your Life

Almost Made is a one-man show in which Louie Liberti plays more than a dozen characters, but this show is no parlor trick. It is a moving tribute and one heck of a journey, as well as a cardiovascular workout for this actor, who works up a real sweat while divulging conflicted emotions in portraying his flawed father's life. Liberti, who developed the piece with Mark Travis, grew up in Queens under the thumb of his father, who never quite achieved the success he desired. As a teenager, Liberti began working in the "family"-run club, privy to, but often turning a blind eye toward, his father's machinations with the mob. What's more, his father, whom Liberti idolized, never rose to become a "made" man (hence the play's title) and eventually sank into substance abuse. Rocked by his father's misfortunes, Liberti then went to Los Angeles to make a new life for himself, yet ended up making many of the same mistakes, falling into drugs and getting arrested.

Even so, Almost Made is no mere "sins of the father" story. Liberti may have made similar mistakes, but he always distinguishes the two men, particularly in showing the son's frustration with his father and home life, and his shame in letting everybody, including himself, down.

Almost deals with much of Liberti's life, and he is to be commended for covering so much ground. He not only portrays many pivotal people in his life, including the mobsters whose ranks his father aspired to join, but does so over nearly two decades, a remarkable measure of both the actor's depth and his range. Highlights include his early, on-the-job fumbles and, much later, his anguished phone calls home from jail cells in Los Angeles.

His standout moments, though, occur in his depiction of the young teen's first pangs of puppy love; here, the actor gracefully darts back and forth between the son's embarrassment and the father's taunting. It is astonishing to watch, and a testament to Liberti's ability to make the emotions of each of his characters palpable as they rise easily to the surface.

Structurally, the play's conceit seems unnecessary: Liberti arrives back on the East Coast after his father's death to eulogize him, thus allowing his trip down memory lane. He occasionally interrupts the chapters of his life by returning to the eulogy, then goes back to his past. This format is fine from a functional standpoint, but director D.W. Brown could have served the story just as well by staging the action in a linear way. Occasionally, Liberti gets a tad caught up in the story's action; though one can always tell which character is talking, it is sometimes hard to figure out exactly what is happening at the moment. In particular, the action that takes place at his father's nightclub begins to feel redundant.

Still, Almost Made is in so many ways an honest, cathartic experience, providing a harrowing journey into one man's life, that most criticism seems quite trivial. In performing his show, Liberti proves himself to be an outstanding talent and, more important, honors his family's decisions and sacrifices. In doing so, his father may have given him the greatest gift of all.

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The Great Conjurer, a new play by Christine Simpson now playing at the Kirk Theater, finds unique solutions to dramatizing the life of Franz Kafka, a writer whose often deliberately flatfooted, methodical prose does not necessarily translate well to the stage. In his famous unfinished novels The Trial and The Castle, he represents modern man as lost in a bureaucratic labyrinth and subjugated to laws he no longer understands. Kafka's dark, dry, and comic tales portray the divide between one's imaginative longings and their inevitable frustration by material and mundane circumstances. Likewise, in his life Kafka struggled to reconcile his creative aspirations with the worldly expectations imposed by those around him. The question that The Great Conjurer asks is, Which should be regarded as more "real"—one's dedication to the estrangement of writing or one's homely responsibilities? To depict this schism, the set, designed by director Kevin Bartlett, is cut in half by three transparent scrims: a lone writing desk hunkers in the foreground while a whole tree trunk thrusts upward in the background amid blue streamers hung from the rafters. Both spaces, like Kafka's prose, have the force of realism, alternately minimal and magical.

In the background, the family from Kafka's novella The Metamorphosis, wearing eerie, oversized masks (designed by Melissa Crawford), hector each other until they're mutually helpless. The story's main character, Gregor Samsa, the well-meaning but despised brother who wakes up one day to find he's a bug, doesn't wear a mask but crouches in dance-like poses off to one corner.

The story's family doubles as Kafka's real family when the characters venture into the foreground. Gregor, played with spunk by Brian Nishii, stands in as Kafka's imaginative alter ego, hovering at times behind the writer, twitching and backpedaling like an overturned cockroach—just as Kafka himself will sometimes wander into the realm of his fantasy. There, he scrawls phrases on a chalkboard with Gregor's encouragement.

Felice Bauer, Kafka's love interest, and Max Brod, his editor, friend, and father figure, both keep stolidly to the foreground. Brod, a conservator of Kafka's unsettling, evocative writing, argues with Kafka's father, who is constantly pressing his son to give up literature so he can settle down and find a good vocation. Dramatically, the tension is not fully realized, however, because Kafka's father never drops the mask, making him look fake, angry, and inconsequential. In hindsight, of course, the audience knows Kafka as a great writer and would naturally be inclined to side with Max (Andy Place) anyway.

The play's main conflict concerns Kafka's love for, and hang-ups over, Felice, to whom he twice proposes and twice spurns. One sympathizes with Felice (Sara Thigpen) in wanting more than an epistolary affair—Kafka wrote her more than 1,500 letters professing his passion. One suspects Kafka had more fidelity to fiction than to life: he wanted to write about passion more than he felt able to act upon it.

While one may be tempted to dismiss Kafka's love life as nebbishy and neurotic, the writer's ambivalence is wonderfully staged by choreographer Wendy Seyb in a sequence in which Gregor pulls Kafka back from Felice as Kafka's legs spin out in the air. Kafka, forced into the dark crawlspace of his fantasy, seems less real than Gregor, the defenseless insect, who has emerged to take his place.

Tzahi Moskovitz should be commended for his understated portrayal of Kafka as a polite, beetle-browed boy. Moskovitz does not ham it up and "Hamletize" during his many searching soliloquies. The one exception to the generally solid acting is Paula Wilson, playing the rather superfluous character of the narrator, who appears bumptious, shrill, and overwrought.

Director Kevin Bartlett smoothly blocked the large cast so that its members' moves convey both dramatic and allegorical meanings. In addition, the pace is brisk but controlled throughout the 90-minute performance—and especially lively when the characters overlap their dialogue on occasion. Live musicians perform on cello, clarinet, and accordion from a small alcove above the stage during key moments, subtly framing the play with a historical dimension, as Kafka was writing as a Jew in Eastern Europe shortly before the Nazis invaded.

To Simpson's credit, her portrait of Kafka does not lapse into idolizing. He emerges very much like a character in one of his own stories: conflicted and unsure about the laws of love and duty, he endlessly tries to reinterpret them as he gets ever more lost in the maze of his own powerful fictions.

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Northern Exposure

To most Americans, Canada is that strange nation to the north whose major exports are beer, hockey players, and Degrassi High. Our idea of the country is that of a colder, more rural United States where everything and everyone's a bit cleaner and a bit nicer. But Judith Thompson's play The Crackwalker, produced by New World Theater, shows a different side of Canada by focusing on the desperate denizens of Kingston, Ontario, circa 1979. The result is a harrowing, powerful tale of economic depression and mental illness. Therese is a mentally challenged manipulator and compulsive liar who makes her doughnut money by servicing gay men and sleeps on her friend Sandy's couch. Sandy, a rage-filled, emotionally damaged woman, is married to Joe, an abusive, womanizing gambler. Joe's friend Alan (who is seeing Therese) is a twitchy former addict with a tenuous grip on reality.

Sandy and Joe fight and make up as they try to establish a better life for themselves. Alan and Therese get married and have a baby, against the wishes of her social worker and with the misgivings of Therese, who previously had a baby taken away from her. Though Therese is no longer working as a prostitute, she is not bright enough to take care of a child or to realize that Alan is mentally ill and should not be responsible for her or their son. Even the relatively stable influence of their friends cannot stop the tragedy that is to come.

The reality of the events portrayed onstage is helped along by the theater space itself. The Access Theater is on the fourth floor of a building that evidently houses another performance space above it; at several moments during the performance, there were loud banging noises and voices raised in anger coming from upstairs. One could imagine them stemming from arguments among other tenants in Joe and Sandy's apartment building.

Tattered, mismatched furniture is easy to do on a small budget, but period costumes are not; design consultant Frankie Keane picked out some cute vintage duds for the ladies. Thompson's gritty script mimicked regular conversations in its language, rhythms, and the ebb and flow of conflict. Two characters would be at odds with each other but then talk themselves into agreement through their mutual ire against a third character. These transitions occurred so naturally that it was hard to remember who was mad at whom, as sometimes happens in life.

The strong writing is complemented by the strong acting on display by the cast of non-union actors. Melanie Kuchinski Rodriguez brings a long-simmering bitterness and a great Canadian accent to the mostly reactive role of Sandy. Her physical confrontations with David Wesley Cooper, who believably plays the mercurial Joe, are fraught with danger and sex.

Karron Karr doesn't always succeed with the very stylized slang that Therese speaks, but she underplays her character's mental handicap even as she nails her mix of naïveté and sexual sophistication. Kelly Miller rises to the challenge of Alan, who changes from eccentric but lovable to psychotic and frightening in the course of the show.

On Broadway and Off-Broadway, Irish playwrights are now all the rage. On Off-Off-Broadway, most produced scripts are written by new local playwrights and Shakespeare. While it's important to foster the talents of young New York writers, importing plays like The Crackwalker can only add depth to the city's cultural offerings.

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Song and Splatter

What is it about cult movies and stage musicals that seem to go together so well? Perhaps reality is pushed so far in cult films that the next logical step is for characters to burst into song. The Producers and Monty Python's Spamalot both had music and dance in their original film versions, so adding more of both to their theatrical reincarnations wasn't much of a stretch. But how do you explain the idea of turning a no-budget indie horror film into a mega-budget, Off-Broadway musical spectacle? Such is the case with Evil Dead: The Musical, based on director Sam Raimi's horror trilogy that grew campier and more popular with each installment until it peaked with 1992's Army of Darkness. These movies starred a then-unknown actor named Bruce Campbell, a no-nonsense Midwesterner with a prominent chin and a snarlingly hip delivery that gave lines like "Gimme some sugar, baby" catchphrase status among college students and "hipsterati." Raimi's blend of horror and humor worked because his movies were fun, earnest, and self-aware without being too snarky.

The musical's creators have mixed together the plot of the first two films and the famous lines and ending from the third, adding music, dance, and an extra cup of camp. What they've cooked up is an airy soufflé full of weak meta-jokes and a generic score. The audience, clearly hungry to see this material on the stage, gobbles up empty calories of winky references and a clever set design, not pausing to realize that maybe tonight's pop culture junk food isn't worth tomorrow's post-binge guilt at having spent $66 on a half-baked live version when you can spend less by buying the three DVDs.

There are some things that really work in this production: the cabin set is great, the direction and pacing are slick, and Ryan Ward (who bears a passing resemblance to a skinnier Bruce Campbell in the first film) is both charming and bad-ass as the hero Ash, possessing a great voice and a strong stage presence. The gorefest of Act 2 is well choreographed and certainly gives people in the $26 seat "Splatter Zone" their money's worth in fake blood.

But the script is drowning in mockery, and the faux-earnest musical numbers, while well rehearsed, are, for the most part, too clever for their own good. (The love song between Ash and Linda, "Housewares Employee," and Ash's song "I'm Not a Killer" do work, perhaps because Ward is able to put them over with enough earnestness to diffuse their sting.)

It's a shame that book writer George Reinblatt felt the need to punch up the original script so much; the source material, played straight, would have served up better laughs than some of the mean-spirited and downright uninspired humor put in its place. (A male character calling one of the female characters "stupid bitch" over and over again isn't funny, even if he winds up with his entrails ripped out by evil trees.)

As a fan of Raimi and Campbell's work, separately and together, I really wanted to like this musical (I've been on the show's e-mail list for months). Coming into the show, I tried not to have high expectations, assuming that it would be a lot like it was—all bouncy songs, movie lines, and blood sprays. But while watching it and thinking about it later, I realized there's nothing wrong with high expectations. This show just doesn't satisfy like the movie.

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Written in the Air

Half the fun of New York is in raiding its pockets. On a Sunday night, you can walk through a curtain into a tiny black box like the Big Little Theater and see a sleekly designed bit of theatrical Americana like Seduced. The play, "back by popular demand," is part of the ongoing Sam Shepard festival, in which the company will produce all his plays in a multiyear festival through December 2007. Though it may have fewer resources than some, the Michael Chekhov Theater Company does a good job mining the imagistic possibilities in Shepard's play. The set design is fairly minimalist, as seems fitting for a story about a recluse who has cut off contact with the world of the living: there's a black recliner with a small table, two small palm trees, and an off-white floor. And while it's not a solution that would work for many plays, the striking coordination of the staging and the visual design goes a long way toward making director Richard Whiteman's production a cohesive whole—at one point, turquoise lights match a turquoise dress that matches a turquoise glass.

And sure, the lights are at times a little glaring and the volume of the actors' voices a little too loud for the space. But when a group of performers and a creative team put so much heart and forceful energy into a play, it makes it very easy to have a good time.

The lights first come up on an elderly man with overgrown nails and uncut hair. This is Henry Hackamore (Vance Clemente), a former airplane designer and tycoon—and a thinly veiled substitute for Howard Hughes. He is now a paranoid recluse whose unseen entourage moves him from hidden location to hidden location, for no apparent reason other than his insistence. Hackamore, in a confident, straightforward performance by Vance Clemente, is watched over attentively by his gun-toting bodyguard and servant Raul. Played by Michael Smith Rivera in a powerful portrayal, Raul rubs Hackamore's aching feet and patiently calms his paranoid fits.

To bring him something of the world he's shut out, the dying Hackamore has requested the presence of two women from his past. They are Luna, played by Amy Cassel-Taft with something intelligent and maybe a bit sympathetic underneath a taunting, coquettish veneer, and Miami, played by Jennifer Leigh, whose dialogue is often punctuated with movement. Not surprisingly, they can't deliver what he wants. When Miami embarks on a story about Las Vegas at Hackamore's request, it's immediately apparent that we're never going to hear the end of the tale. Hackamore also forces the two women into a verbal contract and insists that, instead of using ink, they sign it in the air—which was, after all, his domain.

Though the play is short enough that it doesn't drag excessively, there's too much stillness after the intermission. But then again, maybe that's the point. Air after all isn't an easy thing to possess—"Now try to see the space it's not consuming," Hackamore says early in the play to Raul, in discussing the positioning of a palm tree. But the intentionally undefined setting, combined with an assumption that we know whom this is about and when the story is happening, may make it a little hard to grasp for an audience today. It was particularly confusing when Miami said she hadn't been to Las Vegas since 1952. I couldn't help wondering—was that 10 years ago, 20, 54?

When Shepard wrote Seduced, Hughes had been dead for only three years. He certainly has his place in American mythology, and American mythology is still as intangible as ever. And yes, this is a play at least a little about American desire— "It would be great to fly over America in the daytime, though," says Raul. "Just once. Somewhere over Nevada." But I can't help thinking it may have been more powerful—or, at the very least, less abstract—when Hughes still had as strong a hold on the nation's imagination as he had when the play was first produced, in 1979. The Aviator not withstanding, I'm not really sure that people want to own this myth as ferociously as they did at the time.

For a play with more than a touch of the absurd, it's a surprisingly nuts and bolts production guided by the text and accentuated by the visuals. And it may have a particular appeal to those interested in seeing the range of Shepard's work and his place in American theater as a whole, which is why it's perfectly placed as part of a festival. There's an implicit invitation to come see more.

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When the lights come up—or barely come up—in Dramaton Theater's puppet-play trilogy The Traveler, at Theater for the New City as part of the Voice 4 Vision puppetry festival, we see a man peek out from behind a rock. His face is chalk-white, his tiny hands appear shriveled, and between the near-invisible rods that connect these hands to his chin there is nothing. No body. The black-clothed, black-masked body of his puppeteer lingers upstage of him, the solid shadow of a barely material man. The design of this puppet, and most of the others in The Traveler, exists midway between Japanese bunraku and rod puppetry. Like the showcase's artists, the puppets' characters are caught between different places and different forms. Thematically, The Traveler concerns travelers, the homeless, the invisible or transparent, and ghosts. Each of which, Dramaton passionately contends, is synonymous with all of the others.

The first tale, "The Road," is an adaptation of British poet Richard Middleton's 1911 short story "On the Brighton Road." In "The Road," or, rather, on it, are two homeless travelers, an old man and an 18-year-old boy. The road in question is in southern England, on the way to Brighton. The man is newly homeless, but the boy has been on the run for years.

But something is not really right with this picture. The cars they pass on the road—realistically represented as near-blinding pairs of headlights careening across the stage—are modern. What is going on here? And will the travelers ever get to Brighton? These mysteries find an entirely predictable solution, but the piece remains entertaining, and a good introduction to the style and themes of the whole showcase.

Like "The Road," the second piece, "Purgatory," is an adaptation, from Irish poet and playwright W.B. Yeats's 1922 melodrama. Outside a decrepit, burned-out, stately mansion, the aging, homeless descendant of a headstrong noblewoman and her working-class husband leads his "bastard" son into his own inescapable purgatory.

The story seems very dated, with the father an alcoholic, destructive ingrate and the aristocratic mother a tragic martyr to her love for him. Without her dangerously democratic sexuality, the house would not have burned down. This is especially apparent when the old man watches his parents' ghosts at their moment of tragic downfall—his own conception. The play critiques the protagonist's classist paranoia, but the characters are two-dimensional figures of evil and good.

That is not the case in the final piece, "K." This original play was written for Dramaton by Enma Ito, artistic director of Japan's Fantoma Theater Company, and translated by Shima Ushiba. Ito achieves a remarkable complexity of character for a script of this length.

The title seems to allude to Josef K, the harrowed protagonist of Franz Kafka's The Trial. Like Josef K, the hero of "K" is the focus of a much-unwarranted accusation. He is a black cat. Bitter, self-centered, and distrustful of a world that condemns him without knowing him, the black cat is transformed when he meets the Faceless Man, the ghost of an aspiring artist who died unrecognized. The Faceless Man renames the black cat "Holy Night" and entrusts to him a difficult, important, and sacred mission that will transform them both.

With "K," Dramaton definitely saved the best for last. "The Road" and "Purgatory" are entertaining, beautiful (of a sort), and clever, but "K" is emotionally compelling, and the ending almost draws tears. Furthermore, whereas the preceding two pieces could be performed by live actors, "K" cannot. Defiance of gravity, human transparency, an animal character that would give Walt Disney nightmares, and a voyage into what appears to be a sewer system all demand puppetry, and they show off the medium wonderfully.

The cat puppet is as minimal as Dramaton's other creations are. It consists of two glove puppets: the cat's head and its bluish-black, shiny, chaotically furry, and very limber tail. It is at once ugly and beautiful. Its eyes narrow to black holes from which no light escapes, and its long black teeth keep it looking scary rather than cute. Its extra-long silver whiskers stand out in bold chiaroscuro.

The Faceless Man resembles Dramaton's other human puppets in its construction: two rods for the arms and a pale face floating above them. Only this face is sculpted in a transparent material over a flat, face-shaped plate, which appears to be made out of a mirror. What better way for the frustrated artist to haunt his abandoned world than as a literal mirror held up to nature?

"K" concludes with a beautiful final twist that I can't reveal but that makes perfect sense of the title and shows how imagination drawn out of darkness can brighten the world. Which is exactly what Dramaton, in presenting The Traveler, accomplishes.

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Stage Blood

Contemporary horror movies often leave little to the imagination. Death, monsters, violence, torture, and, of course, blood are so much in view that they often stop being so scary. To raise the threshold, we add more death, more torture, and more blood. It's what we expect in a good slasher flick. We weren't always this overexposed (or maybe this jaded). Early horror classics like Nosferatu or The Phantom of the Opera seldom resort to showing gore. Yet at the time, those movies were considered sufficiently frightening. Where was the shift to our fascination with blood? These questions are raised by Nosedive Productions's The Blood Brothers Present: An Evening of Grand Guignol Horror.

Grand Guignol was the French theatrical tradition of shock and suspense that flourished in the early part of the 20th century. Its plays were characterized by the violence portrayed onstage: decapitation, eye gouging, and other forms of mutilation. Drug-induced altered states and sex were also common themes. It could easily be considered an early equivalent of the American horror movies that have become popular during the past 30 years.

An Evening of Grand Guignol Horror is structured like a traditional Grand Guignol show. It consists of several short plays: in this case, an introduction and five different scenarios. Two segments, "The Final Kiss" and "The Kiss of Blood," are classic French plays, written in 1912 and 1929, respectively. The remaining segments are modern interpretations of terror, created by members of Nosedive Productions. Blood was prominently featured in all of them.

The two French plays were the highlight of the evening. They required the most from the actors (the other scenes contained little to no dialogue, save for agonized screaming) and involved actual staging. While they might have once been horrifying, the plays now seem overly melodramatic and campy. Acid burns, peeling skin, and mutilated fingers elicited giggles instead of gasps of shock.

But the directors—Pete Boisvert for "The Final Kiss" and Patrick Shearer for "The Kiss of Blood"—had everyone play it straight, which was absolutely the right choice. Instead of trying too hard to make these scripts seem relevant or winking at the silliness of it all, they allowed the audience to find the fun and enjoy the action. The performers in both sketches were also right on target, delivering lines earnestly without hamming it up.

In contrast, the three modern sketches were much more exaggerated; they were exactly what an audience would expect from an evening of horror. Psychological torture and twisted irony dominated these scenes. "Lights Out" and "Blinded," two bookend pieces, were the most violent. "Vagina Dentata" was certainly the most graphic.

Because they were really just skits, they were less engaging than the Grand Guignol plays. They also were played with all seriousness, but when compared to the other pieces, they seemed too self-conscious and even ridiculous. This is in no way a reflection on the company's creative work, but simply a result of two contradictory styles.

An Evening of Grand Guignol Horror, on one level, was a fun evening of entertainment. Stage blood generally makes for a lively experience, especially around Halloween. Upon closer inspection, the show provided a thought-provoking observation—certainly for this reviewer—about our culture's current fascination with pain and gore, and explored the boundaries of what we consider truly shocking.

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Collage Effect

Matthew Maguire, now an Obie Award-winning actor and chairman of the Department of Theater and Visual Art at Fordham University, got his start in theater with an adaptation of Max Ernst's collage novel The Seven Deadly Elements, which was presented at La MaMa in 1977. Since that time, he has experimented with all manner of genres and media. In celebration of La MaMa's 45th anniversary, he has returned to collage with the exquisitely crafted, if occasionally inscrutable, Abandon. George Braque and Pablo Picasso are credited with having invented collage as part of their early cubist experiments. Considered by many to be one of the most significant developments in 20th-century art, collage involves the juxtaposition of fragments from various works in various media in order to create a new piece of art. The technique was quickly adopted by visual artists as well as narrative and performance artists. It has been argued that theater was a multimedia form centuries before the term "multimedia" was coined, and, as such, it seems uniquely situated to take advantage of collage techniques.

Maguire has applied the concept of collage in as many ways as possible to Abandon. The stage's back wall is made up of three large screens, onto which are projected a series of stunning collages by Maguire. Video images are often projected as well, setting the backgrounds of the stills in motion. This visual score is accompanied by Andrew Ingavet's original music, itself a collage of fragments from a variety of genres. Acoustic, orchestral, and electronic moments are pasted together, sometimes segueing smoothly and sometimes crashing together with intentionally jarring suddenness.

Against this prerecorded landscape, actors walk a stage divided into zones by lines taped on the floor. While the projections and the music provide a kind of emotional roadmap, the performers bring a more concrete narrative. The scenes combine experimental dance theater with straightforward dialogue, juxtaposing narrative techniques to create yet another level of collage. When the actors step behind the screens they become living shadow puppets, blurring the line between foreground and background.

Unlike much of Maguire's early work, Abandon has a fairly linear plot. Helena (Alexis McGuinness) is a young woman traumatized by the loss of her mother and by the failure of her parents' relationship. Her sister, Marguerite (Genevieve Odabe), sees Helena avoiding any kind of emotional intimacy and tries to help her. The story has details and twists and turns, but it really serves as a frame for a thematic exploration of male-female relationships, both filial and sexual. While invitations to dance initially serve as metaphorical attempts at intimacy, the dances eventually become violent. At one point, the war of the sexes is presented via slow-motion recreations of pro-wrestling moves.

Many of the techniques employed will be familiar to anyone who's been through a couple of acting classes in recent decades. Actors walk in grid-like patterns, exploring postures and gestures that change their height to represent their fluctuating power relationships, among other things. What are usually experienced as classroom exercises, though, here become a precisely choreographed and codified series of moving images. The advantages of a long rehearsal process with dedicated collaborators are in evidence throughout.

The night I attended Abandon, it was intriguing to note that few of those in attendance were responsive to the production's considerable humor. Most of the audience seemed to be involved with what was onstage (with the exception of one gentleman who snickered derisively at moments), but there was very little laughter. This may have been in part because the projected images—surreal, haunting, apocalyptic—had established an atmosphere that didn't encourage laughter. But I suspect it had more to do with the way many audiences perceive this kind of work in general.

Too often, experimental theater is assumed to take both its subjects and itself extremely seriously. Audiences may feel they are expected to sit in a state of hushed reverence at even the most absurd images. As often as not, this kind of work can be seen as pretentious: something looks or sounds ridiculous, but audience members think they're not supposed to laugh. My advice to attendees of this show (and of others in this vein): if the actor makes a funny face, or the situation seems absurd, or the music reminds you for a moment of Pee Wee Herman, it's probably supposed to be funny. There's no need to stifle your chuckle.

Ultimately, Abandon isn't for everyone, but no successful work of art is. For adventurous audiences looking for a unique evening of theater, it's well worth the price of admission, and a trip to the theater that is arguably the birthplace of Off-Off Broadway.

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Shepard Revisited

The controversy over whether or not art should be politically engaged has long been divisive. Theodore Adorno, the New York-based critic of modernism and pre-eminent figure in the Frankfurt School, argued that one of the defining features of 20th-century art has been its resistance to confronting social causes. Since Adorno's time, however, much artistic work has taken on social issues. Take, for instance, the difference between when Sam Shepard wrote his 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Buried Child and its most recent New York production, by Nicu's Spoon. Shepard's plays often look at such matters as the decline of the American dream in oblique ways that do not superficially engage social problems. In interviews, he has notoriously undercut notions of "themes" or "agendas" and focused much more on the stories themselves. Buried Child is far more attuned to the story of the grief-stricken patriarch Dodge (Jim Williams), his religiously zealous wife Halie (Wynne Anders), and their misbegotten progeny—all of whom are in various states of denial and self-loathing—than it is concerned with Midwestern poverty or the mythic, forgotten West.

Yet the social issues are there, and Nicu's Spoon, a downtown company committed to producing socially relevant theater, has actively searched Buried Child for new points of entry. This production features a talented deaf actor, Darren Fudenske, playing his first speaking role as the man-child Tilden, oldest son of Dodge and Halie.

Clearly, raising a social issue is what Nicu's Spoon has done, as reported in a recent New York Times article on the controversy surrounding the production. Some in the deaf community have protested Fudenske's performance, saying it contributes to the perpetuation of the idea that deaf people have to speak instead of using American Sign Language. Fudenske, who does sign and has performed in productions where signing was the predominant form of communication, has defended his choice to portray Tilden as a victim of parenting that did not allow the use of sign language.

Other aspects of the production also reflect Nicu's Spoon's desire to diversify the traditional character list of white Midwesterners. It has cast both Dodge and his grandson Vince (Erwin Falcon) as Asian-Americans. As for the story line, it remains the grim portrait of a declining farm family: after the questionable death of his fourth son, Dodge has long since given up farming to resign himself to alcoholism and endless TV watching, while Halie has sought relief in religion and the hypocritical Father Dewis (Alvaro Sena). Their sons, Tilden and Bradley (David Marantz), have squandered their years in the long shadow of the family's shame. But a visit from Vince, Tilden's long-lost son, and his girlfriend Shelly (Wendy Clifford) could potentially change the dynamics of this suffering family.

Standout performances alone by some of the actors make this performance worth seeing. They include Fudenske, whose raw characterization and coarse voice bring to the surface the long-buried pain of a man who has lost his grip on reality as a result of the choices he has made. With his gruff demeanor and sharp tongue, Williams's Dodge readily displays the resignation of a man deeply disappointed by life. In scenes where other actors are onstage, their characters become secondary to the Oedipal tragicomedy between Williams and Fudenske. Even when some of Fudenske's words are incoherent, enough tension is brought about by his presence to make the audience feel ill at ease.

As Halie, Anders delivers a subtle performance but sometimes seems to miss the comedy inherent in the script. Sena's Father Dewis at times falls into a similar trap. Falcon comes on too strong as Vince, running over many of his lines in his constantly angry diatribes. Marantz, as the debilitated Bradley, shows his character's frustration but sometimes seems to lack the feeble menace Bradley attempts to exhibit.

The production's main problem is that it is not terribly funny. Shepard's play should be both terrible and humorous, and it should become all the more devastating at the end because of the humor throughout. But in this rendition, there are too many times where the humor is missed, and whether that was deliberate or unintentional, it makes some of the scenes seem longer than they really are, as written.

While Shepard's plays may not be the best choice for those wishing to produce socially conscious theater, Nicu's Spoon has successfully attempted to bring his work into the activist sphere by crossing the divide between art for art's sake and art that is politically aware.

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