The Show Does Not Remain the Same

Part of the beauty of live theater is that, sometimes subtly, sometimes not, the performance is different from show to show. No Tea's production of Plucking Failures Like Ripe Fruit takes the variance present in live performance to the next level. Moments prior to the show's beginning, members of the audience pluck six ten minute play titles out of a jar (out of a total selection of ten plays), ensuring that each night will vary, not only in terms of the actor's energy and ability to properly say their lines, but also in terms of the content and the tone of the piece. On the evening the show was reviewed, the plays presented were: “Anything for You” by Cathy Celesia, “A Day for Surprises” by John Guare, “Request Stop” by Harold Pinter, “Cold” by David Mamet, “1-900-DESPERATE” by Christopher Durang, “Miss You” by David Auburn, and “Sure Thing” by David Ives. Your experience will be totally different, though, given the randomness of the play's selection and performance order.

The performers are all eager and for the most part, full of energy to tackle whatever plays the evening may throw their way. However, “Anything for You” started the night off on a low energy note. Two woman, best friends, meet for dinner. Lynette drops a bit of a bomb on her friend Gail: she wants to have an affair. And she doesn't want to have an affair with another man, she wants to Gail to sleep with her. Gail tries to act flabbergasted, however, the energy emitted by the two actresses never quite reached the point where Gail was truly shocked by Lynette's proposition. The actors were limited by remaining seated at a dining table for the duration of the play. The play's ending was also open-ended; the ten minute framework didn't provide it with room to come to a conclusion to the women's problem.

However, things quickly picked up and remained up with the evening's second play, “A Day for Surprises.” One of the lions in front of the 42nd Street library comes alive, walks into the library and eats one of the librarians, leaving two extremely dorky librarians left to ponder the meaning of love and life together. Jeremy Mather is hilarious as Mr. Falanzano, a librarian heartbroken after his librarian love is eaten by the lion. Mather physically throws himself across the stage in torment as he describes his and the deceased librarian's well-read love affair. Meanwhile, Alicia Barnatchez listens as Miss Jepson, another socially awkward librarian. The two are undeniably sweet as two lonely bookworms trying to reach each other after a rather silly tragedy.

Two of the plays, “1-900-DESPERATE” and “Miss You” feature sad, bored people spending their evenings talking on phones, either to a dating hotline or to their husband, of whom they've grown tired. The use of phones in performance can be tricky, yet the director, Lindsey Moore, has arranged the cast onstage into nice stage pictures, so that while the action may be minimal, the view is still a treat for the eyes.

The theme of Plucking Failures Like Ripe Fruit is failure at love, and the plays depict the commonality of human loneliness in a delightfully plucky manner. The arrangement of plays on the evening I saw the show caused it to end on a delightfully high note, suggesting that although love is tough and rife with failure and loss, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The last play was David Ives' “Sure Thing,” where a man and woman meet in a cafe and, with the help of a dinging bell, get to keep trying to make their first meeting just right.

However, the charm of the concept is that this uplifting experience was for this night and this audience only; the next time the show is performed, the selection and arrangement might make for a completely downer evening. But no matter, the quality of the acting and the directing will make Plucking Failures Like Ripe Fruit an enjoyable night of theater whether the arrangement is uplifting or not.

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That's The Spirit

There is a grisly side to Christmas, the side everyone suffers through with a forced smile and clenched teeth. Behind the compulsory cheer is always some difficult relative that no one wants to talk to or one traditional family activity that everyone hopes will finally be retired. Between the pressure to make dinner a success and the high expectations for tender, lasting memories, the holidays are ripe for family drama. And family drama is what popular English playwright, Alan Ayckbourn and director Laurie Eliscu deliver in the madcap holiday fare, Season’s Greetings, currently playing at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre.

The story opens in a traditionally decorated living room with a brightly lit tree in the corner, a mountain of presents beneath it and long strings of pine and red ribbon wrapped around the staircase banisters. The orderly Christmas setting provides a perfect backdrop for the disorderly chaos that is bound to ensue when the dysfunctional family and friends convene for the holidays.

Uncle Harvey (Lee Beebout) says he is buying the children guns for Christmas. He then tries to coax the evening’s host, Belinda (Francile Albright) to stop hanging candy canes and watch a shark fight on TV. From upstairs, an unhappy pregnant wife, Pattie (Morgan Reis) screams for her lazy husband, Eddie (Dan Via) to say goodnight to his kids before they forget he exists. Alcoholic aunt, Phyllis (Karin De La Penha) can be heard offstage breaking dishes in the kitchen where she is attempting to cook a lamb without blacking out. Meanwhile, her meek husband, Bernard (Byron Loyd) prepares for an annual puppet show that everyone annually dreads.

Frustrated in her loveless marriage to Neville (James Weatherstone) Belinda throws herself at Clive (Foster Davis), a polite young novelist who graciously accepts an invitation from his doughty secretary, Rachel (Jody Eisenstein) to stay with her family for the holidays. Belinda and Clive have immediate chemistry as implied from the Christmas music that starts to play the moment the two lay eyes on each other.

The stage is set for amusing light comedy but eventually turns into a more serious look at the failed dreams and miserable lives led by each character. As an English playwright, Ayckbourn is mostly known for writing plays that focus on the social structure of the suburban middle class in England. That being said, the observations found in Season’s Greetings about the hysteria of the holidays and the life crises it inspires are universally relatable.

However, there are some noticeable differences: the English celebrate Boxing Day and seem wired to maintain good manners even in the face of open resentment. Within this gathering there are some misunderstandings but no deep, dark secrets. Husbands and wives conduct their marital tiffs in the middle of the living room not caring who sees their dirty laundry being aired.

The story’s dramatic tension comes in wondering what each member of this unpredictable clan will do next. They overreact to small issues and underreact to large ones, making their actions impossible to see coming. Still, nothing could more unpredictable than the story’s final act, which includes a very surprising, unforeseeable twist.

When all is said and done, Season’s Greetings will not leave viewers longing for the holidays. In fact, this is the kind of play that makes you want to skip the holidays altogether and get right to the part where you return to your normal, relative-less lives. However, it does lower the bar of expectations for what a successful family gathering should be. By Season’s Greetings standards, as long as everyone leaves the dinner table in one piece, you have officially survived the holidays.

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Last Inaction Heroes

Mostly thanks to Judd Apatow and Seth Rogan, cinemagoers of all demographics are currently obsessed with unlocking the mysteries of the man-child – a hard partying "frat packer" who fights the necessity to grow up even into his thirties. Binge drinking, gross-out high jinks and a sportsman-like attitude towards sex make up the typical character traits and humor of this brand, eventually revealing a disarming sentimental side. After what was surely only a matter of time, the bro-mantic movement puts the moves on the New York theater scene, with Danny O'Connor's strapping and surprising one-man show, Zero. O'Connor's multi-character, inebriated opus succeeds on a lot of levels, just maybe not the ones it intended. Zero examines the remnants of a Texas high school eight years after graduation, where nearly everyone, it seems, has failed to move on. Everyone is still in love with dream girl Mindy McFee, even though they constantly complain about the fight to escape their younger selves. As the characters Leonard and Sam frequently admit (with equal amounts of pride and disgust), they are the "kings" of their town; but in reality, their ambitions are paralyzed by the comfortable, unchanging surroundings. The return of old friend Alex – a soldier coming home from Iraq – shakes up to the status quo on the evening in question.

Zero's script, written by O'Connor and his late brother Robert, is a noteworthy character study, as well an able exercise in dialogue and structure – which is probably a nice way of saying nothing much happens in the story. But it doesn't need to, since lack of ambition and momentum are really the key antagonists here. Alex, Leonard and Sam talk around things in the same circles, they lie or they just goof each other; whatever it takes to keep everyone talking, but not talking about anything important. Otherwise they might actually consider the state of their lives and have to confront their demons. This here-and-back-again dialogue exudes an air of ambivalent disconnect nicely throughout most of the script, but becomes detrimental when the characters are hung up on something for too long. A scene where Alex and Leonard argue over what type of animal is on the Jagermeister bottle seems to last forever, without being funny.

There’s also a larger issue with the comedy, because there are plenty of funny lines and gags, but nothing really plays as "funny". It isn't O'Connor's performance or the characterizations, it isn't the many pop-culture references or the jokes themselves, but something short-circuits the transmission of the goofy stuff – perhaps it is the nature of the one-person-playing-many format, where the crackle of a group's chemistry must rely on one actor's timing and endurance. As a result Sam's over-the-top boisterousness and Leonard's quirky indecisiveness come off like Greek tragic flaws rather than “screwball antics.”

Which brings me to the main point about Zero: though the O’Connor brothers set out to write a comedy about over-aged frat guys partying, via Danny O’Connor’s performance it accidentally becomes a profound survey of the degenerate generation. The characters Alex, Leonard and Sam are so confidently defined through posture and voice that in hindsight they seem to have been played by three different actors entirely. The audience lives with these three characters on stage for most of the play, examining their motivations (or lack thereof) and detecting their every lackluster attempt to bring about that thing we keep hearing so much about these days – change. But the spiritual revolution never comes. It probably won’t ever for these guys. Watching O’Connor’s three main characters swallow that disagreeable tonic in their different ways is concurrently heartbreaking and enlightening.

(There is an entirely unnecessary sub-plot split up over five monologues involving James and Gabe, students from the same high school as the other guys, but from a separate group of friends. In the end, the newly metrosexual Gabe learns a lesson about honor and James gets trampled upon. But first they attend an overly-weird poetry performance by Malthazar that is constructed solely out of pop-culture references and song lyrics. There are funny parts in this, like when lonely James says lackadaisically says “Yay” after blowing out his pity-party birthday candles, but overall this segment failed because James, Gabe and even Malthazar felt like watered-done versions of the three central characters.)

In a monologue halfway through the play, Alex the soldier recounts the events of a raid in Iraq where he was forced to kill an Iraqi. The bar room lights shift to a somber crimson and Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” warbles softly in the background. Alex takes shot after shot of Jagermeister, becoming increasingly more inebriated throughout the story, until he is squinty-eyed and speaking in heightened, almost poetic language. "No one day in Iraq is different from the next," he says "they pass like freight cars, the subtle distinguishments lost in the blur of their passing color." This puzzling ritual affects deeply on two levels; first that O’Connor’s late brother and co-writer was a soldier in Iraq, and second that Alex hopes to transform his harrowing experience into a familiar unreal haze with alcohol. His need for a comfortable routine has yielded a chillingly disconnected attitude towards Iraq; "it's easy there," he says. Now Alex, the only character to actually escape the repetitive hometown world of Zero, so desperately wants to return to a life without ambition, difficult decisions and regret that he can build one in the trenches of Iraq.

Where most potty mouthed man-child comedies thrive because of their sizeable hearts, O’Connor’s piece astonishingly blossoms in its heartbreak.

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Flux's Angel Eaters Trilogy Takes Wing

Most Off-Off-Broadway companies know the difficulties of mounting any show -- eking out a workable budget, finding the right performance space, coordinating schedules. How difficult must it then be to produce three shows at once? The Flux Theatre Ensemble knows this firsthand as it concludes its 2008 season with playwright Johnna Adams' ambitious tri-part Angel Eaters cycle.

The trilogy follows three generations in the life of family with an odd gift: the ability to reanimate. It turns out that there are Carriers, who are capable of transmitting the angel eater curse, and Eaters, who can both transmit and wield the curse. Young 1930s Oklahoman Joann (Marni Schulenberg) finds this gift oddly thwarted. When she attempts to raise the dead by eating off of their body, she strips them of their good essence, resurrecting a violent demon version of lost ones, including her own recently deceased father. The choices Joann and her family make trickle down into the play's two subsequent chapters, Rattlers and 8 Little Antichrists, which take place in the 1970s and 2028, respectively.

"I was at a cousin's wedding and started listening to a family story told by several aunts," Adams explained about the genesis for her complicated play, "and I started thinking about my parents' generation as humans." A second family story involving uncles who worked as snake wranglers inspired Rattlers. Adams also explained that a love of southwestern gothic style and such creative works as AeschylusÃ' Oresteia and Christopher Smart's "Jubilate Agno" helped fuel this opus.

She first introduced it to the Flux ensemble at their annual August retreat in 2007. "The whole company was really excited about her voice," said Heather Cohn, Managing Director and a Flux founding member. As the work evolved, the company decided last December that it would be the final work in their upcoming "Season of Transformation."

"This is the longest that Flux has spent developing a play with a playwright," Cohn said of the year-and-a-half long process. Adams admits that she went through upwards of fifteen drafts of Antichrists alone, though the shows themselves were cast back in February.

Both Angel Eaters and Rattlers, the company said, stand largely on their own, while Antichrists depends a little bit more on its predecessors. Though the three plays ultimately fit together, they also stand on their own as distinct arcs, and unlike other repertory efforts, each play in The Angel Eaters Trilogy features three distinct casts and directors. "There are three different directors with three different visions," explained Jason Paradine, another Flux Founding Member who also plays Osley, Joann's grown nephew, in Rattlers. "However, they all met together at the beginning of the process for several months of production meetings to talk about how the arcs fit together."

In order to bridge the three shows, the same design team worked on all three productions, which "guaranteed continuity," according to Cohn, though not without some challenges. While casts and directors came and went based on their specific schedules, the technicians were not so lucky. "The sound and light designers [Asa Wember and Jennifer Rathbone] were at the tech tables the entire week before we opened, and even the directors lost sight of that," said Paradine.

Additionally, Flux members insist that the actors link each of the three shows together. "The little details emerge," Cohn said. "They make the connections stick out more."

The three Angel Eaters plays run on alternating nights, but all three run in one day-long Saturday marathon, a la Tom Stoppard's Tony-winning Coast of Utopia trilogy. "The marathon days are exciting," Cohn said. "They have a different kind of energy." They also provide cost-effectiveness in the form of a $40 package deal to catch all three shows together on Saturdays.

Cohn, who works the door, often hears the audience reaction following performances. "People will come to see just one of the shows and then decide to come back and see the other two." Paradine, for his part, finds the process of putting on these shows to be the most gratifying element. "It's exhilarating to completely immerse ourselves in such a neat community-building opportunity."

What's next for The Angel Eaters Trilogy? Another incarnation of Rattlers is already being produced at the Stage Theatre in Fullerton, California. According to its creator, the trilogy might expand even further. "I might re-visit it further down the road," Adams said. "It's still alive in my head, and I'm not done yet. It might become a quintology!"

The Angel Eaters Trilogy is currently playing at the Wings Theatre.

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A Second Coming...from the Bronx

Leave it to a New Yorker to distill hate, racism, and cynicism into a story about faith and redemption. In Amerissiah Derek Ahonen uses 27 years of city living to humorously portray the Ricewaters, a Bronx family living a perverse, but instantly recognizable version of the American Dream. The play’s remarkable achievement is tackling the bitter emotions that make us uncomfortable with literally irreverent humor. It’s a shocking thing to shock a New Yorker, and Ahonen, with his needle-sharp wit, left a stunned audience guffawing at the most inappropriate jokes. After this feat, there is something disappointingly cliché about the mystical ending, especially when the play’s realism makes the characters seem worth saving. However, the transformation of vitriol into touching comedy is in itself miraculous. The play revolves around Barry (Adam Fujita), a terminally ill man who has returned to his childhood home to die. Barry spends much of the first act cloistered in his bedroom, which gives us time to meet his family. Though it consists of stereotypes, the energy in each portrayal and the smart writing distinguishes the group as belonging uniquely to this play and to this singularly disturbed Ricewater family.

The family is in various states of denial, but Barry’s illness brings them together for a joint reckoning, which satisfies the guilty pleasure of laughing at their rottenness and hypocrisy. No ethnic group is spared their pointed anger, but the jokes within the play are filled with the good spirited self-awareness of theatrical humor.

In some ways the Ricewaters are oddly traditional, adhering to a custom of conspicuous consumption, and perceived moralistic liberalism, that has landed the patriarch, Johnny, and his daughter Holly in legal trouble. But Ahonen’s observations are fresh, his characters arrestingly eccentric. Holly is an angry, selfish alcoholic, but her transparency makes her sympathetic. When she later laments her need to do “what feels good,” it’s as though she knows of no other way to live; her superficiality is achingly pitiable.

Ahonen’s cruel and cynical characters would hardly be so engaging if it were not for superb performances from the cast. As Holly, Nancy Clarkson seems to buckle under the weight of her problems, and launches attacks with the particular bitterness of the insecure and unhappy. Though she struggles with a credible New York accent, her bitterness is simultaneously touching and disgusting.

Holly’s hate is mostly directed at Margi, Barry’s new age-obsessed wife, whose values stand in stark opposition to those of the Ricewater clan (Holly summarizes: “I hate calm women.”). Holly’s criticism extends to all members of her family and exemplifies their defiantly anti-Christian way of life. She is adamant, however, about identifying herself as a “bleeding-heart liberal,” as though it exonerates her. The family’s liberalism is an irony they are incapable of noticing, but it’s part of their quirky charm.

Rounding out this three-ring family circus are Johnny (George Walsh, who plays a delightful mix of Larry David, Tony Soprano, and everyone’s embarrassing uncle), Ricky, a recovering junkie, Loni, his emotional powder keg of a girlfriend, and Bernie, the evil neocon, complete with cross and self-serving biblical references. The recovering junkies are the most relatable characters onstage. William Apps’s Ricky is damaged like the familiar junkies of fiction, but his sensitivity highlights new depths in the archetype. Most poignantly, the bleakly comic assertion that this time, for real, he is off junk (which makes for a great punch line when the dying man is desperate for a toke). In this show, no stereotype is safe from ridicule. Beyond the liberal family there’s an interracial couple with a Scarface-clad wannabe rapper—a wannabe black person.

With selfishness and cynicism on jubilant display it might seem easy to dismiss a sick man with a messiah complex. However, though these figures seem hopeless, their dedication to Barry rouses the sort of compassion that begets forgiveness and redemption. When they forgo their skepticism to grant Barry his prophecies, the possibility of hope enters their lives, and the second act gives birth to several miracles: an unlikely apology from the unmovable father (who had once said “You gotta want to be right to be right”) and an unusual cameo from the sun.

Perhaps it’s disingenuous to pull a moral from a play that relishes in the vileness of its characters, but, when a strange black woman with telepathic powers arrives, Barry no longer seems like a joke; it’s just that the meaning of the miracle is unclear.

The salvation stuff aside, the show is an enjoyable antidote to the usual holiday fare about the joys and sorrows of homecomings. For this uniquely messed up American family, there is a uniquely American savior in Barry, the kind of Christ figure that can promise to get to heaven and make it impossible for those on Earth to cheat in sports.

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Heroine Chic

The short, spectacular life of Anita Berber epitomized and inspired those of her Weimar Republic generation (and beyond), including such influential artists as Marlene Dietrich, Leni Riefenstahl, and German expressionist painter Otto Dix. Author Mel Gordon dubbed Berber “Weimar Berlin’s High Priestess of Depravity” in his 2006 biography, upon which Oh, Those Beautiful Weimar Girls, an original play with music and dance, is based. Conceived and directed by the founder and artistic director of New Stage Theatre Company, Hungarian native Ildiko Nemeth, and written by Mark Altman, the piece recreates the milieu over which the iconic Berber—silent film actress, dancer, poet, playwright, and sometime drug-addicted prostitute—ruled before her early death (of tuberculosis) at the age of 29. As a performance piece, Oh, Those Beautiful Weimar Girls, is equally spectacular, lavishly choreographed by Julia Atlas Muz and Peter Schmitz (who also stars as the Master of Ceremonies), with gorgeous bejeweled costumes designed by Javier Boné-Carboné, who also plays Berber’s co-combatant husband and co-star Sebastian Droste. The shimmering Metropolis-inspired set designed by Jason Sturm is moodily lit by Federico Restrepo. Grounding all of this is an evocative musical score with original compositions by Jon Gilbert Leavitt (also referencing Metropolis and other period stylings), plus music selected by Nemeth including everything from Beethoven to Kurt Weill, to the warblings of the distinctively original German countertenor (and 1970s émigré to NYC’s East Village), Klaus Nomi.

However, since it is billed as a “play,” I found the teensy bits of fractured story in or between performance numbers to be largely unsatisfying. With Berber arguably being one of the first postmodern performance artists ever seen, particularly in female form, here she remains enigmatic, and it seems that an opportunity to fill in more of the blanks about her turbulent personal life and unique artistic perspective is sadly missed. We only see Berber (and other characters) as performers, not as people, and while Sarah Lemp vividly brings her brash, provocative stage persona to life, she doesn’t seem to have been given enough material to create her character in full relief. If an impressionistic visual and aural tribute is the primary intention, then it succeeds, but playwright Altman is quoted as saying the play aims to “capture [Berber’s] indomitable spirit and inspire young and old alike to rage against the night.” But this only seems possible had her essence been more thoroughly explored, which may have proved that much more fascinating and/or inciting.

Also shamefully underused is Kaylin Lee Clinton as the Chanteuse. Clinton’s voice is lilting and lovely, and her all-too brief spotlight moments are transcendent. The timbre of her voice alone can speak volumes, suggesting that if the piece had been organized as a true musical (which it seems to have ample material for), then perhaps more of the emotion and drama inherent somewhere in these vignettes could have come through.

The chorus of Weimar Girls, played by Lisa Kathryn Hokans, Florencia Minniti, Madeleine James, Kat Ross, Christine Ann Ryndak, is a marvel to watch, guided by Schmitz’s ubiquitous MC, serving as they do (in lieu of a narrative) as the ostensible “engine” of the piece. Their make-up, wigs, masks (also created by lighting designer Restrepo), even their lightening-quick costume changes, all were impeccable. Their movements are at times playful, sensual, animalistic, and finally robotic as the era begins to devolve, and they embody the dubious celebration (objectification) of female entertainers in post-WWI Germany. More exploitative than erotic, most of the cabaret lifestyle is still fun to watch, although less so as it grows into the morbid, seemingly desperation-fueled orgy it ultimately became.

It may have been a contact high, but I sensed a subtext of a bizarro-world Alice-in-Wonderland (call it “Anita in Wunderland”) with the MC cast as “Mad Hatter,” Berber as the “Queen of Hearts” (complete with an “Off with her head!” scene), and the baroness’ corruptible daughter, played with believable innocence by Jeanne Lauren Smith, as the virginal “Alice.” The bisexual, S&M relationship among Denice Kondik’s kinky Baroness, her young daughter, and Berber, might lead us down the rabbit hole, so to speak, but again it seems to operate solely as a symbol, without seeking further exploration. Also inexplicable are Berber’s interactions with the Naïve Journalist, played by John Rosania, whose presence seems ready-made to inject some commentary, and yet he mostly just sits around, as voyeuristically as we feel.

I believed it had been Berber’s challenge of what was “acceptable” in her world-weary society that actually inspired her followers, not just the acts in themselves, which seem to be the primary focus here. We see that the chorus girls begin to appear maniacal with frozen smiles and locked in step, and yes, Berber’s so high that she can barely stand upright, and finally, as she takes a turn for bloodlust, whether real or imagined, I felt like, “ok, ok, we get it.” Even in an earlier scene where the MC is alternatively gorging on and vomiting quail eggs, one starts to wonder, is there any other statement to be made? Without any context of what the performers/observers may have thought or felt, the glorification feels like unenlightened sheer spectacle. The odd effect of this being that by the time the Nazis start to loom, we feel a sense of great relief, surely not the creative intention? Yes, Berber truly lived through her art, and her light burned (and crashed) brightly, but what lies beneath those iconic images, many of which, after all, do survive? With this we are only left to ponder, and hopefully to seek out more.

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Company's Coming

Levy lives in a museum of his own creation. Surrounded by keepsakes he has gathered throughout the years and records that he listens to on a ritualistic basis, he has a quiet little existence that is minimal and modest. And then he meets Lillian (Barbara Eda-Young) and her teenage son, Yidl (John Magaro). Lillian Yuralia is a character-driven play written by Barbara Eda-Young and directed by Austin Pendleton that blows the dust off the surface of a man’s life to reveal all the untold stories and quietly dying memories that lie underneath.

Eda-Young’s story, which runs only one hour and fifteen minutes long, crams a host of complexities from three individual lives into a tiny, succinct package that never once says too much or too little.

Lillian and Yidl barge into Levy’s life after they are evicted from their apartment. Moments before they must leave, Lillian overdoses on poison and awakens to hear her son sobbing and Levy (Ben Hammer) pouring a bucket of cold water over her. Panicked, they stumble into his one bedroom apartment against a flurry of objections.

Within moments of their arrival Lillian is vomiting in his bathroom, peeling off her wet gown and drying herself in Levy’s ankle-length robe. Yidl makes a beeline for a shadowy corner where he sits, silently sobbing. Levy stares, barely able to comprehend what has just blown through his door.

Eda-Young is both the star and playwright, which gives her exceptional insight into her flighty, but well-meaning character. She embraces Lillian’s faults without excusing them. Her pain as a mother and ruined woman is evident in her strained, desperate smiles. She steals longing glances at Yidl from across the room, searching for the carefree child she used to know.

Levy senses that something is amiss, which both sobers and baffles him. His guests eventually have a train to catch. He knows their presence is only temporary but what should he do with them in the meantime? Offer them tea? Insist Yidl sit on the chair when he seems determined to remain hunched on the floor?

While Levy tries to asses the situation Lillian gives him her lists of grievances: she fell in love with a man, they had a son, he took care of them, loved them …but he wouldn’t leave his wife. And then he died, too suddenly to provide for them. Yidl read about it in the papers, the truth knocking the words right out of him. In a matter of days he lost his father, his home and everything he knew to be true.

Though Lillian and Yidl’s unraveling relationship is the main focus of the story, it is Levy who provides the bittersweet center. He watches as Lillian brushes the hair off her son’s face, choking on some suppressed emotion. His family was killed in Jewish riots when he was only a teenager. Watching Lillian and Yidl together seems to stir something within him, perhaps because everything they are losing now reminds him of everything he has lost over time.

Levy spends most of Lillian’s visit trying to resist her incessant probing. He says, “I don’t remember,” when asked anything about his past. But when the topic comes to his family he remembers everything: his sister’s bright blue eyes, the sun on his mother’s face as she looked out the window and the games he played with his siblings in a meadow with flowers.

The play’s climatic end comes suddenly and unexpectedly. Until one small, but pivotal moment, it is not clear what kind of terms these new acquaintances will part on. Then something happens, a simple gesture, but enough to alter life’s course and leave the audience with some hope for the characters' futures. Like Lillian Yuralia, this gesture is unassuming and straightforward in its execution but deeply significant and heartrending in the purity of its meaning.

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A Latter-Day Loss

Henry Stuart Matis was a 32-year-old Mormon who committed suicide in February 2000 after years of trying to reconcile his homosexuality with the teachings of his church. As gay icons go, Matis is far less known than Matthew Shepard, but Roman Feeser nevertheless has written a play that seeks to elevate Matis to a martyrlike status. Feeser, who is not a Mormon, has done a laudable job of absorbing the language of Mormonism as well as its teachings and some of its more obscure history. The unfamiliar, often startling terms in Missa Solemnis bring one vividly into the insular world of Latter-Day Saints—indeed, members refer to one another as “saints.” Watching over every Mormon is “Heavenly Father,” and daily Scripture reading is common practice.

But in spite of the trappings, there are dramatic obstacles. “The catalyst [for his suicide] has never revealed itself,” Feeser has said. “The reasons why are one of the biggest pieces missing from this puzzle.” One is left to infer that Matis wanted his death to spur changes to the Mormon church's view of homosexuality. But with such an emotional cornerstone absent, Missa Solemnis becomes a plodding case study with few dramatic surprises as it follows Henry’s coming out to his family and his declining struggle to reconcile his feelings and his faith.

The first moments of Linda S. Nelson’s production hold promise of dramatic excitement. Henry stands, gun to head, under flashy lightning effects by Graham T. Posner. Then, we hear roughly 10 minutes of speechifying from Henry’s mother, father, bishop (the term in Mormonism does not connote ordination), and Henry’s boyfriend Todd (Jai Catalano). In spite of some cinematic cutting among them, the monologues are talky and often sound like résumés: “When I became a mother,” says Marilyn Matis (Gail Winar), “I read The Book of Mormon and the Bible to my children and have continued to do so ever since. My husband, Fred, and I religiously attend the Temple, hold family prayer twice a day and have believed in Monday family home evening since the birth of our first child.”

Henry’s father claims to know that his son had engaged in a sexual relationship; Marilyn denies he ever did. “Henry had been struggling with his same gender attraction for quite some time,” says Marilyn, a dry and subtly destructive figure who, even when trying to help her son, makes him feel he hasn’t done enough. “I use the term ‘same gender attraction’ because Henry did not take to the terms ‘homosexual’ or ‘same sex attraction.’ … He preferred the term ‘gay,’ but I feel the term ‘gay’ connotes sexual activity, so I will use the term the Church prefers ... same gender attraction.” Prayer and Scriptures are her, and the LDS's, solution for Henry.

Todd describes his first encounter with Henry. (They “meet cute” and unconvincingly: Henry orders milk in a gay bar, and Todd, in a milieu that places a premium on good looks, is attracted to his milk "mustache." Would a man of 32 really not be able to drink milk without getting it above his upper lip? Do adults of any sexual orientation find that attractive?)

To be sure, Henry’s plight echoes that of another debatably tragic figure, Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck, who is victimized by others, and Henry certainly has more sensibility about what is happening to him. Matt Huffman lends Henry a striking man-boy quality. He giggles affectionately when talking with his parents, suggesting that his emotional growth has been stunted. (At 32, he still lives with them.) And he agonizes deeply about his sexuality.

One of the most effective scenes is between Henry and Bishop Bob Rhodes, played by Warren Katz with gruff sympathy and open-mindedness. Katz juices up the discussions of politics, religion and LDS policy with his nuanced portrayal. One learns that LDS founder Joseph Smith once delivered a warm eulogy in London for a man, Lorenzo Barnes, who slept with another man. Though Rhodes met Henry only once, he extracted a promise that Henry would contact him if he ever felt urged to end his life—but Henry didn’t.

Yet, although Feeser has marshaled a good deal of information, there’s much more of Henry’s story that one wants. What were his relations with his brother and three sisters like? Henry also apparently attended a party with 15 gay men, but was so assailed for his Mormonism that he never went back. Still, if he found 15 men at a party, how is it that he couldn’t find a confidant somewhere, given that he is handsome, easygoing, and loving, albeit a bit quirky? After all, Matis lived in California, not Utah, where such isolation might be insurmountable. Missa Solemnis, for all its good intentions, is more a solemn miss than a tragic hit.

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Poetic Justice

When his ship set off in 1875, the captain of the Catalpa had a pretty demanding schedule ahead of him: sail from Massachusetts to Australia, rescue six Irish rebels from a prison there, and do some whaling along the way. Donal O'Kelly's approach to telling the story of this voyage seems equally daunting: conveying the entire epic by himself. Well, not entirely by himself. He has Trevor Knight, the composer and performer of the show's score, offering occasional backup. But for the most part, it's just O'Kelly and his firm grasp of imagery and language, guiding us through the journey in his one-man play, Catalpa. In a largely engaging two hours, he spins the fantastic and the mundane into a kind of poetry that is rarely seen on stage.

History gives him some fabulous material. The play introduces us to figures like John Devoy, the Irish patriot exiled to America who hatched the plot; John Breslin, another Irishman who went first to Australia to set everything up; and George Anthony, the American captain of the Catalpa. Judging by their plan, these men were quite the optimists: rendezvous in Australia, grab the prisoners, throw them in the boat, and pray for wind.

O'Kelly frames the adventure as a movie his narrator is pitching to executives. This format allows for easy transitions. Instead of long descriptions (or pesky set changes), O'Kelly settles for declarations ("Backwater dock.") or camera directions ("cut to") when switching scenes.

Presenting the story as a movie pitch also lets O'Kelly insert self-aware asides. The commentary is used to humorous effect, like suggesting that one particular scene should have "sinister music to suit." It also allows him to package character descriptions as spoken stage directions: one man's laugh, for example, is rendered as "Ah-ha ha laugh laugh grin cough/grimace swallow phlegm and stroke mustache."

With so many people to introduce, these quick snapshots are what often suffice for character development. It seems O'Kelly settled on just enough features to distinguish between speakers during their conversations. Breslin, for example, is the sum of his raspy voice, giant build, and "walrus" mustache. O'Kelly's female impersonations are his weakest, as they tend to err on the side of creepy - even when the context doesn't call for it.

To be fair, the playwright and performer has a lot on his plate besides portraying characters. He is the set: crafting giant ships and rising waves out of the air. He is the special effects: echoing the sounds of a drill works or steamboat. And at one point, he's even a convincing bird.

The script's rhythm and onomatopoetic touches also propel the story and pull the audience into this world. The musicality of words is crucial to how O'Kelly draws each scene. His only prop, after all, is a sheet. Imagining his characters inside a stagecoach, for example, he incorporates intermittent "clippa-cloppa clippa-cloppa's" into the dialogue that give the scene a clipped pace and make it quite easy to picture. In fact, the cadence of almost every scene is well suited to its content.

In addition to the aural quality of his writing, O'Kelly brings poetry to the stage in a way that is beautiful in its simplicity. He has a Hemingway-like ability to select descriptions so precise that few words often do the job of many. His minimalist portrayal of the prisoners is perfectly succinct: "scorched Australian bush./Six pairs of leaden legs in busted boots."

In organizing the monologue into a series of camera shots, O'Kelly zooms in and out of particular scenes, carefully selecting the images he thinks best tell the story. When he chooses correctly, it is crisply evocative. While the audience is treated to many of these close-ups in the first act, the second half of the show tends to settle on more generic, wide shots. This is the case for the pivotal prison scene. Depicted in a rushed way, it seems almost like an afterthought to O'Kelly, ranked behind stunning scenes of flying birds and surfacing whales.

But these flaws should not overshadow what O'Kelly has accomplished with Catalpa. Brilliant lyricism, an adventurous history lesson, and enough imagination to get you to Australia and back are reason enough to hop aboard.

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Madness and Sainthood

Frozen in the center of Boomerang Theatre Company’s staging of Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke, halfway between the homes of its two central characters, a stone angel casts a weighty shadow of symbolism onto the events that unfold before it. The angel not only marks a fountain that serves as a meeting point for Williams's characters, but its unchanging presence also reflects the imprisonment of Alma Winemiller, the play’s haunting leading lady. The recent recipient of the Caffe Cino Award at the New York Innovative Theatre Awards, Boomerang has taken on a hefty challenge with this work. Most of its inherent difficulty lies in the psychological intelligence that’s required of the actors playing high-strung, moralistic Alma and magnetic, self-absorbed Johnny Buchanan.

Summer and Smoke is set in 1916, in a small town in the Mississippi Delta. Alma and Johnny are neighbors, and both bound by the legacies set by their families. Alma, a preacher’s daughter, has been forced to take charge of household duties after her mother’s mental breakdown. Johnny is on his way to becoming part of his father’s medical practice, but he rebels against his family’s expectations by focusing on drinking and womanizing. Despite warnings from the community about Johnny’s irresponsible nature, Alma is smitten, and determined to reform him.

A master at providing a poetic context to deep-seeded and relatable emotions, Williams doesn’t let his characters off easy. We watch them display remarkable self-awareness and, in spite of it, fail at their attempts to change their lives; this level of cold realism is ultimately what makes Summer and Smoke a profoundly sad viewing experience, and an intensive undertaking for the actors who tackle this material.

As Alma, Jane Cortney puts forth a commendable effort. Her character’s tendency to hyperventilate, nervous speech patterns and an erupting sadness hidden behind her kind demeanor are as essential as the poignant lines she delivers. Throughout the work, she is required to convey exaggerated behavior as aspects of her character, not as parts of her acting process. At times her exertion is too obvious, but in the end it’s tough not to admire Cortney’s devotion. When Alma’s hope begins to give way to her family’s legacy of hysteric madness, the tragedy of her conscious defeat is likely to ingrain itself in an audience’s memory.

Jonathan Kells Phillips as Johnny is equally convincing. Intelligent but self-absorbed, he portrays the kind of unintentionally damaging nature that many audience members are likely to recognize in other emotionally scarred playboys. The earnestness and vulnerability he displays with Alma makes his subsequent selfishness all the more aggravating. There are times when we can clearly see Phillips focusing on his phrasing, but the otherwise strong performance makes this minor glitch easy to overlook.

The supporting cast also gives noteworthy performances. Beth Ann Leone as Johnny’s lover Rosa Gonzalez channels unspoken magnetism into the character’s looseness, and thus helps the audience relate to a character that could easily be interpreted as a thankless stereotype. Deborah Carlson, meanwhile, is heartbreaking, aggravating and unexpectedly amusing as Alma’s unstable mother. Despite the character’s handicap, we sometimes get the sense that Mrs. Winemiller is more aware of the conflicts around her than she lets on.

The small black box theater provides an ideal setting for the characters’ fine-tuned range of emotions. Watching them confront one another from such a close proximity triggers just the right level of discomfort; as audience members, we realize that we are dropping in on something private. Watching the work of great playwrights in such an intimate setting is a rare treat, and Summer and Smoke’s talented cast of actors only elevates the experience.

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Shock Value

Thomas Bradshaw is a playwright known for shocking audiences and presenting taboos. He’s true to form in his new play, Dawn, now premiering at The Flea Theater. Yet, after one wades through the taboos he presents in Dawn one may ask, “What is the point of this play?” Hampton (Gerry Bamman), a wealthy man in his 60s, has wasted his family capital on alcohol. His first marriage has failed, he has alienated his family, and his daughter blames him for her personal problems. Hampton is an alcoholic with a capital “A.” He gargles Johnnie Walker, drinks a case and a half of beer when deprived of liquor, takes an inordinate amount of time to surreptitiously fill Poland Spring bottles with Bombay Sapphire, and then hides them throughout the house. Hampton’s new wife, Susan (Irene Walsh) is fed up with his alcoholism and impotence; she convinces him to go to detox. Laboriously, they then take minutes to dump the contents of the bottles into a large basin.

Another major plotline concerns Steven (Drew Hildebrand), Hampton’s 33-year old son, also a recovering alcoholic, who enters into a predatory incestuous relationship with his niece, Crissy (Jenny Seastone Stern), a seeming innocent who, we later find, masturbates on web cam during study breaks for paying middle aged customers.

With 25 scenes, each lasting a few minutes at best, Mr. Bradshaw is unable to develop these characters beyond the superficiality permitted by his chosen format. They become caricatures, stereotypes. As if his name alone doesn’t signal it, Hampton is the preppy, icy one. Susan is the spoiled desperate housewife. Laura is the acidic resentful daughter. And so on. Many of the serial scenes cohere only in an agonizingly linear way, like a soap opera.

There is no question that, with depictions of full frontal nudity, suggestively graphic pedophiliac sexual scenes, family violence and incest, Mr. Bradshaw is trying mightily to shock us. With each new transgression, though, I noticed that people around me rolled their eyes and giggled. They may have been shocked but only in the way that one finds a South Park episode shocking. And, yes, these parts are of the play are gratuitous, and, frankly, a bit insulting.

That’s because Mr. Bradshaw has got at least two separate plays here that he’s attempting to mash up, and it doesn’t work. Dawn wants to be a comedy but can’t seem to bring itself to make the leap. It oscillates between the farcical (the physicality of the fighting between the drunken Hampton and Susan is hilarious) and the solemnly didactic in the manner of a Davey and Goliath cartoon:

STEVEN: …I want you to know there is a solution. HAMPTON: What is it? STEVEN: Alcoholics Anonymous.

Another problem with the play is that solutions come so...readily. Hampton, after what appears to be a lifetime of agnosticism, abruptly finds religion after only token resistance. Laura (Kate Benson), his hysterically bitter daughter, who harbors a generation’s worth of vitriol for her father, unexpectedly blurts out, “Yes, Dad, I forgive you.” The ending, too, is wrapped up tidily, if violently and predictably.

Jim Simpson’s sometimes-questionable direction only adds to the contradictory nature of the play. Why, for instance, does an ensemble member pour a bottle of water on Hampton’s crotch, between scenes, in full view of the audience, to demonstrate that he has urinated in his pants? This drew peals of laughter from the audience.

Another ruined scene is one where Laura confronts Hampton for destroying her childhood. The script curiously calls for Steven to be in the laundry room, yet visible, masturbating with Crissy’s soiled panties. Despite plenty of physical room with which to work, Mr. Simpson situates all the characters so closely together that the spatial illusion is thwarted. Steven, rather than appearing shocking, looks like a child trying to distract the adults.

Gerry Bamman is strong as Hampton, urgently seeking his moral center. Another standout is the playful Laura Esterman as Nancy, Hampton’s first wife, with whom he improbably reconciles during the course of the play. Michael Goldsheft’s set is a serviceable room that must suffice as the setting for all 25 scenes. An LED board above the stage tells us when we are in “Crissy’s Room” or “Laura’s House,” but it’s more gimmicky than needed.

All in all, Dawn, generating more heat than light, is a disappointing effort by a celebrated young playwright.

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Out, Damn Sword

Shakespeare’s Macbeth, often referred to as “the Scottish play” by those superstitious about the play’s legendary curse, has reemerged as Shogun Macbeth from Pan Asian Repertory’s vault. This original and highly stylized version, adapted by John R. Briggs, is set in 12th century Japan, in the midst of a samurai society during a time of warring clans. Ernest Abuba, who created the title role in Pan Asian’s original 1986 production, returns this time as director, stating that the intention for its revival was in order to “demonstrate the exceptional talent of the new generation of Asian American actors.” Like a master swordsman, he swiftly hits his mark. Wonderfully cast with Kaipo Schwab as Macbeth and Rosanne Ma as the fiery Fujin (Lady) Macbeth; three punk/Kabuki-styled Yojos (witches) played by Shigeko Suga (who also appeared in the 1986 version), Claro Austria, and Emi F. Jones; as well as Keoni Scott as a commanding Shogun Duncan, all of the players infuse the play with power and energy. Ma’s Lady Macbeth begins the play as tightly controlled and smoldering. The sexually charged relationship between her and Schwab’s malleable Macbeth is palpable, and their mutual descent into mania and madness threatens to alight them, as well as anyone else within range.

Punctuated by full-on spark-inducing swordfighting scenes choreographed expertly by Michael G. Chin, the violent action is also balanced by Japanese movement artist Sachiyo Ito’s touches throughout the piece, including the tea ceremony and other traditional behaviors. The choreography of the Yojos (here, ancient demons known as obake ) as yet a third movement style seems at once freeform and wild, while actually functioning expressionistically like some kind of grotesque ballet. Not to mention their creepy vocalizations. They are at once chilling, amusing, and adept in both observing as well as spurring the characters’ actions like rickshaw drivers gone mad. On the other hand, I found that the interjections of the traveling poet and holy man Biwa Hoshi (played by the talented Tom Matsusaka), who steps in between scenes to deliver a haunted poetic narration, almost detracted from the otherwise tight structure. It kept reminding me I was sitting in a theater watching “a production” instead of continuing to be swept along by the epic story.

E. Calvin Ahn plays Macbeth’s nemesis MacDuff as well as serving as the production’s Fight Captain. Sacha Iskra brings Fujin MacDuff’s own tragedy heroically to life. The supporting cast (and their exciting battles) adds lots of color and emotion, including the Shogun’s sons played by Marcus Ho and Claro De Los Reyes; Macbeth’s best friend Banquo played by Ariel Estrada; and the loyal samurai played by Ken Park, Ron Nakahara, and James Rana. Yoko Hyun and Nadia Gan, both in multiple roles, effectively play young family sons, servants, as well as the drunken gatekeepers in a welcome moment of levity amongst all the tragic events.

The costumes designed by Carol A. Pelletier were impressionistic of the ornate garb of the period, appearing to be well vented and layered to allow the actors to move and change easily throughout all of the complex proceedings. The brocaded shin and arm guards, and layered, sometimes flowing robes, or even basic warrior uniforms, were evocative while remaining functional. The almost-fright wigs and kabuki style makeup of the Yojos, and also the stylized elements on Ma, all worked to enhance the high drama.

The lighting design by Victor En Yu Tan helped to illustrate Charlie Corcoran’s Buddha-dominated set, with its multi-layered and cleverly pocketed spaces for the characters to inhabit. Richly colored pools of light, smoke effects, backlighting, and dramatic blackouts were used to transform the many environments, especially the floor-to-ceiling statue and archway entrance. After the pivotal murder scene where husband, wife, and the entire stage are bathed in bloody red light (pictured), their guilt, madness, and ultimate redress only begin to heighten.

There’s something else inherent in the Kamakura period (1192-1333) that informs Macbeth here, the original play having been written four centuries later. Maybe it’s the richer, longer and more turbulent warrior period, which elicits an even stronger feeling of sacrilege to the royal Shogunate tradition. Tisa Chang, Artistic Producing Director, explains that “...Briggs’ inspiration came from the parallels of Shakespeare’s tragic characters with the philosophy that guided the samurai way of life.” It makes Shakespeare’s most haunted tragedy that much more compelling. As does the omnipresent Buddha watching over the participants (as well as the audience) who partake in all the grisly action, while he bears his silent and unwavering witness.

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Angel Eaters Among Us

In an era when most theater companies choose to produce works by new writers that are one act – no, wait, ten minutes – wait – in length, substantial props go to Flux Theatre Ensemble for producing all three of Johnna Adams’ full-length plays in her new Angel Eaters Trilogy, not only in the same season, but at the same time. Adams, in turn, deserves credit for daring to compose on such a massive scope - the three plays are diversely inspired by the Oresteia, Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno,” the Christian mythic system, and bird-watching lore. The risks that company and playwright have taken, for the most part, pay off. The Angel Eater curse originates with a family of Native American shamans who ritually eat off the dead bodies of humans and animals in order to reanimate them. When a daughter of the family is captured in conjunction with the Trail of Tears, converts to Christianity and marries an Oklahoma farmer, the curse lies dormant for a generation, only to reawaken in Joann (Marnie Schulenburg), a mentally slow girl growing up during the Dust Bowl years of the Great Depression. Angel Eaters, the first of the three plays, tells her story.

Joann’s life is stark - her father has died, her unwed sister Nola (Tiffany Clementi) is pregnant, and her mother (Catherine Michele Porter) allows the local doctor (Ken Glickfeld) to molest her in exchange for the pittance that keeps the family alive. When a dark angel (Cotton Wright) speaks to Joann, claiming that a God who fails to correct the evil in the world is irresponsible and must be overthrown, Joann struggles to understand whether her growing power is good or evil, and whether she should challenge God’s authority by bringing her father back.

As Joann, Schulenburg is mesmerizing, and all of the acting in this installment is excellent. Director Jessi D. Hill takes full advantage of the staging opportunities afforded by the space and spearheads a unified, compelling production. The atmosphere is moody and strikes just the right balance between realism, fantasy and horror. The issues it probes, such as love, grief, fate, desperation, sibling rivalry, and the battle between good and evil, are deep and universal. All of the human characters in Angel Eaters, except Joann, are flawed, yet sympathetic, and watching Joann succumb to her fate is heartbreaking.

Rattlers skips ahead to the 1970s and chronicles an eventful day in the life of Osley (Jason Paradine), Joann’s now-grown nephew. His former girlfriend Ernelle’s (Amy Lynn Stewart) sister Kate has been brutally murdered, and Ernelle is determined to force an unwilling Osley to resurrect her at any cost. Kate’s mother Mattie (Jane Lincoln Taylor) directs her vengeful efforts in different direction while two men (Matthew Crosby and Richard B. Watson) who loved Kate at different periods of her life reveal themselves as suspects in her murder.

If anything, Rattlers is an even stronger piecer than its prequel. With the mood and the curse’s history already established, Rattlers is free to open in the midst of high action. The potency of loss and the destructive potential of love are explored in triplicate and unwind towards a climax as dramatic as that of <Angel Eaters. Once again, the cast is strong, with Paradine and Watson offering particularly brilliant performances and director Jerry Ruiz sculpting a nuanced and cohesive drama.

8 Little Antichrists shifts to a smouldering Los Angeles 2028. Osley’s grandchildren Melanie (Rebecca McHugh) and Jeremy (Zack Robidas), assisted by a sextet of cloned second cousins, battle demons and their dystopian environment to avert apocalypse and save the world from an octet of newborn antichrists.

In this final episode, the fantastical elements of the Eater curse and the Christian theology previously introduced mix with a variety of science fiction tropes – genetic engineering gone wrong, Big Brother technology eroding privacy, malevolent corporations obstructing justice - as well as film noir, detective stories, Californian culture references, and a cariacatured Disneyland. Combined with numerous new characters and a continuously twisting plot, it is a bit too much to yield a coherent presentation. Four characters – the two female angels and the two Disney prisoners – serve no useful function and are frequently irritating – it is a huge relief when they disappear from the scene. At times the script bogs down in exposition; at other times it glosses over information that is critical to following the complex plot and understanding the workings of unfamiliar technology.

While the script poses undeniable challenges, Kelly O’Donnell’s direction does little to overcome them or to take advantage of the text’s equally undeniable strengths, such as its humor, whimsy and at least a few strong, relatable characters. The pacing is wildly inappropriate – it would have helped greatly to slow down or physically highlight important moments of plot development and to speed through or shift attention away from the nonessential ensemble segments. The wide stage and multiple playing areas the theater offers are not as well utilized here as in the two previous plays, and the blocking is often clumsy. The acting style is incoherent and many moments that could have been either sincere or humourous are rendered cheesy and gag-worthy.

That said, by the time viewers have experienced the first two productions, they will want to find out what happens next and be willing to put up with some nonsense to find out. Candice Holdorf does an admirable job playing not just one but six different clone roles, and August Schulenburg plays Ezekiel with energy and expressiveness. The play’s greatest failing is that it explodes in too many different directions, but a play that goes out this way is still much more interesting to watch than one that never offers any interest in the first place.

Perhaps the most successful aspect of the tri-production is the coherent world that Adams and her collaborators create. Even the characters who never appear onstage are convincingly real, and it is difficult not to care about their fate and the ultimate outcome of this family’s struggles. One of the great pleasures of the fantasy and science fiction genres is the “rules” that these stories develop to govern their otherworldy elements, and the satisfaction of guessing how the protagonists will ultimately manipulate their powers to save the day. It is fascinating to watch the Angel Eaters fall into and climb out of the same traps generation after generation, and ultimately resolve their curse. This particular satisfaction is only possible with a longer, muli-chapterered dramatic structure like the Trilogy’s.

All three plays benefit from surprisingly sophisticated design elements. Lighting designer Jennifer Rathbone ensures that the action is always well-lit and the supernatural elements are strikingly highlighted. Asa Wember’s sound design, consisting of Southern hymns and folk music layered with spooky special effects, is nuanced and enhances the plays’ creepy, fatalistic mood, although some of the choices in the final play, such as the cue associated with the body of God, are distractingly inappropropriate. The main structure of Caleb Levengood’s set remains the same throughout the trilogy, and the broken-down wooden walls and boards are very convincing as farm and ranch buildings in Oklahoma, if less suited for a futuristic LA. Smaller elements such as furniture and props change from play to play, and 8 Little Antichrists makes good use of several television monitors that help to make the transition to the future. The costumes, designed by Emily DeAngelis, are uniformly excellent – the dresses the two sisters wear in Angel Eaters are particularly remarkable in their period suitability and the way that they move with and emphasize the actresses’ gestures and actions. The challenge of numerous actors sprouting horns onstage is admirably met.

Adams and Flux Theatre have created a compelling series with an ambitious vision that will hopefully serve as a model for other brave artists and production companies. Get yourself to the theater for the first two episodes and, if you find yourself hooked, stick around for the third.

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Love or Money?

The age-old question, especially for those living in Manhattan amongst a wealthy set: would one “settle” for true love and a life of poverty, or attempt to secure the most financially comfortable lifestyle no matter what the personal cost? This is the struggle facing young couple Susy Branch and Nick Lansing as well as other characters in the new Jazz Age musical comedy, Glimpses of the Moon, now playing in the historic Algonquin Hotel’s intimate Oak Room. Such a charming 1920s theme, and my, how times have changed... uh, kinda. The show is based on the 1922 novel by Edith Wharton, written immediately after winning her Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence. The less-remembered but sweet story, which became an international best-seller in its time, is neatly adapted by Tajlei Levis, who wrote the book and lyrics, with enjoyable music by John Mercurio. It makes good subject matter for a light romantic comedy, and is especially timely given our current economic climate. Any investment broker reference gets a wry laugh, both on behalf of the characters’ approaching future, as well as our own.

The characters of Wharton, who was certainly no stranger to excessive wealth herself, are predictable but likeable, demonstrating the struggles of those both inside and out of her moneyed class. The premise: what if the popular yet penniless Susy and Nick get married purely in order to cash in their lavish wedding gifts, and live on the proceeds for one year, while using their new access and status to meet and woo wealthier spouses? It just might work, unless while enjoying all of the invitations to vacation homes and fancy parties, they accidentally do fall in love... with each other.

The show was designed specifically to be performed in the Oak Room (formerly known as the Pergola Room), and happens to be the exact site where the auspicious first gathering of the legendary literary group later to become known as the Algonquin Round Table took place almost 90 years ago. (That luncheon was held in honor of then-New York Times drama critic Alexander Woollcott’s return from World War I.) Later moved to the main dining room and provided with the ubiquitous round table, the clever wits would lunch, socialize, create, and generally hold court there for the next decade; the very walls are steeped in literary and theatrical history.

The non-amplified acoustics of the Oak Room are wonderful, with cozy wood-paneling (hence its name), and a lighting grid, with creative lighting design executed by Richard Winkler, which rivals much of what is seen in most off-off-Broadway theater spaces. Used mainly for cabaret performances, you can even drink or dine there beforehand if your budget (or your sugar daddy) allows, making it truly feel like an old New York nostalgic treat. But think Stork Club, not your father’s dinner theater.

This element is even incorporated into the show. In one scene, set coincidentally in “the Oak Room,” Susy and Nick are moved by a singer’s heartfelt performance. The singer role, played effectively by actual New York cabaret songstress Lisa Asher, will revolve to feature performers known on the cabaret circuit, ostensibly to entice new audiences and further enliven the production. Look for other special guest stars to come: Robert Newman, Lonette McKee, and Tony winner Chuck Cooper.

With a new producer, Sharon Carr, and some casting changes since its previous mounting earlier this year, the show is now set for an open run. Returning as the colorful friends-with-money are Daren Kelly as old-school Nelson, Glenn Peters as droll Streffy, and comedic delight Laura Jordan playing two roles, society matron Ursula and rich geekette Coral. New to this production are Jane Blass as Nelson’s generous (for a price) wife Ellie, and honey-voiced Autumn Hurlbert and Chris Peluso as the heart-of-gold(diggers) Susy and Nick. The performances are Broadway-caliber, and director Marc Bruni’s rich theatrical expertise is evident.

The vibrant costumes by Lisa Zinni, wigs and hair by Kurt Alger, make-up, and even the characters’ affected high-society dialects were all spot on for the period, and seemed well integrated. I could imagine Denis Jones’ lush choreography and a few narrative scenes (such as the regatta reenactment and honeymoon) being done on a larger scale, which it seems this show has the legs for, but the creative ways they are enacted make it even more up close and personal. You could spend as much seeing a Broadway staple, but including dinner and losing the crush of tourists while being just as highly entertained makes for a unique and intimate experience.

And if one-time Algonquin resident Dorothy Parker had been asked her opinion on the questions the show raises, she might have dropped one of her famous lines, “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.” For my money (what’s left of it), this show is a fun way to Jazz up an average Monday night, raise a toast to Mrs. Parker and friends, and live it up while we can. Take a break from CNN and go wild.

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Long Life's Journey Into Night

The orbit of Saturn around the sun, completed every 29.5 years, lends a structure to Noah Haidle’s deeply affecting new work about loneliness and loss. In a program note, Haidle says that the return to its position at one's one's birth is associated with major turning points in a person’s life. For Gustin, portrayed at 28, 58, and 88, by, respectively, Robert Eli, James Rebhorn and John McMartin, they involve the conception of his daughter, her abandonment of him, and his impending death. In spite of minor flaws, the play is moving and beautifully acted by the cast—the fourth member is Rosie Benton, who plays all the women in Gustin’s life. Told in a reverse pattern, the episodes intertwine with subtle connections. They begin with McMartin’s aged Gustin engaging a visiting nurse, Suzanne (Benton). He has called her for company because he’s lonely. His wife, Loretta, and daughter, Zephyr, are long gone; the latter, he reveals, died in Mexico. He persuades the sympathetic Suzanne to make him some eggs for breakfast, “not too runny,” and she does. It’s a bit of a stretch to accept that a visiting nurse would do that, but in this case suspending disbelief brings its rewards.

On Saturn’s second return, a curmudgeonly but likable Gustin (Rebhorn) clings unhealthily to Zephyr. She has cared for him since she was 14, and he has smothered her with his paralyzing dependence on her, but now she plans to take a trip without him; he objects strenuously. She has also arranged a date for him with a woman named Bonnie—it’s part of her plan to set him off on a new phase of his life—and he’s deeply apprehensive. He disparages the fact that Bonnie is a bird-watcher.

The earliest segment visits the newlyweds Gustin and Loretta in 1948, when they are young and in love. He studies to be a doctor and she insists on making him breakfast (eggs, not too runny, of course). He proposes that she buy a new dress for an evening out at the symphony that night. Gradually Haidle’s skill at weaving the mundane threads of ordinary life into a textured dramatic fabric takes hold. The dress becomes a key element, and Bonnie, we learn incidentally, became Gustin’s friend and ended up in assisted living.

Subtler connections, like the eggs, also enrich the writing. Gustin likes to tell jokes, whatever his age. Loretta’s intrusive widowed mother, who telephones very early every morning, follows the migration of birds, and suddenly the reason for Gustin’s reluctance to meet Bonnie clicks: her hobby reminds him of his dead wife. And the young Gustin’s treatment of her mother’s loneliness comes back to haunt him: “Is there an end to grief? An end to tears?” he asks mockingly as Loretta speaks on the phone. By age 88, he has endured years of the same loneliness. “What a terrible plague memory is,” he says then.

In roundelay fashion, the scenes unfold, playing out in the aged Gustin’s mind and developing further the sad, inevitable story. Zephyr tries to leave, and Gustin pulls at her suitcase; it opens and he finds she is taking her mother’s dress, which he wants to keep. They fight. “You’re my whole life,” he tells her. “I don’t want to be,” she replies. By the end, all the ghosts are in the shabby yet comfortable living room (by Ralph Funicello), and the references to evening’s becoming night, and winter’s approach have taken on full metaphorical weight. (Even the two early-morning scenes occur before dawn; there’s always darkness waiting outside.) The ache of loss is enhanced by Mark Bennett’s score, evoking wistfulness, worry and uncertainty.

The flaws in director Nicholas Martin's confident production are small. Zephyr’s departure on the night of her father’s first date is too abrupt to be realistic. Rebhorn needs a toupee: it's distracting to wonder how a man at middle age could have thinning hair and at 88 have a full head of it (as McMartin does). And, as often happens with young writers, Haidle gives the aged Gustin coarse language that someone of his social status would not have indulged in, especially in the presence of a young woman he hardly knows.

But Haidle’s play evokes, like Beckett, the melancholy human condition with a romantic underpinning in the notion that only one true love in life exists. Gustin’s tragedy is that he clings to the past. But Saturn Returns is also a celebration of simple human connections—the feeling that someone somewhere is expecting you.

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A Multiple Story House

Life in New York City residences has long provided fruitful source material for storytelling, from the illustrated upper crust of the Eloise books to the friends Friends. In his new play, East 10th Street: Self Portrait with an Empty House, presented by the Axis Company, avant-garde theater icon Edgar Oliver tells his own story of the decades he’s spent in his East 10th Street building. With a signature performance style far removed from the world of laugh tracks or the pages of picture books, Oliver’s understated jokes and kooky presence make for a charming evening of solo-performance. Oliver began his career in the New York theater scene as a writer and performer two decades ago. Downtown Manhattan has transformed much of itself since Oliver first moved into the building on East 10th, but anyone looking to reminisce about the good old days of Off Off Broadway while bemoaning the gentrification of lower Manhattan and chastising the contemporary art world should look elsewhere; this is not that sort of play. In his refusal to prize the bygone days of the avant-garde over today’s experimental work, Oliver locates himself as someone continually at the forefront of the downtown art scene.

Simultaneously warm and detached, isolating and communal, heartwarming and heartbreaking, the production masterfully captures the idiosyncrasies that characterize city living. East 10th Street is not so much about changing times as it is about a changing cast of characters. Once populated by a host of outlandish individuals, the building where Oliver has spent his New York career is now home to him alone. That begs the question: what happens when the people who make up your home disappear from it?

At no point in time, however, did the residents of East 10th Street make up a genial rooming house family. A remarkable number of residents appear to have been mentally ill, and Oliver delights in slow, bemused descriptions of each. East 10th is a world where the landlord’s ancient wet nurse spends every day laundering rags in the washroom, while other residents avoid it completely; many of them suspect one another of plotting each other’s murders, to the annoyance of the superintendant, who has his hands full dealing with ghosts. Oliver’s descriptions of the wonderland-like home fraught with such ridiculous conflict and general craziness render his unarticulated longing for it all the more poignant.

Though the passage of time is central to the plot of East 10th Street, at its heart the play is not about nostalgia for a lost era so much as for lost people. A murderous midget moves out of the building to marry a turkey farm heiress (yes), but Oliver uncovers the man’s belongings in the cellar and realizes he hasn’t really left, until the day the suitcase is inexplicably gone. An alcoholic neighbor is carried off to a nursing home in a stretcher, but when Oliver calls the home to check up on the man, they’ve never heard of him. In one of the play’s most evocative descriptions, Oliver tells of reaching for a lover after they’ve quarreled, only to have the boy’s body come to pieces in his hands. That it turns out he had reached by mistake for an old pile of clothes couches the horror of the image in absurdist humor without detracting from Oliver’s profound sense of loss.

Under the direction of Randy Sharp, Oliver’s frequent collaborator and fellow Axis Company member, the production lasts just an hour. Oliver takes his time with each story, which helps make East 10th Street feel like a complete evening of theater. So too does the number of years covered by the stories. Still, a few plot points feel cut short. What happens, for example, to Oliver’s sister Helen? An eccentric artist who served as Oliver’s constant companion, her moving out must have impacted his quality of life, but it's not mentioned. She’s simply not there by the end, and her forgotten presence keeps the audience from being able to miss her. If the creators were worried that lengthening the already slow-paced production would cause audiences to grow restless, they needn’t have. Anyone looking for obvious laugh lines will be frustrated regardless.

East Tenth Street rewards audiences who allow themselves to be tickled by Oliver’s sweetly off-kilter delivery. His nostalgia for the past, combined with his focused engagement with the present, make Oliver a masterful storyteller. If conventional wisdom holds that no one stays in a New York City apartment for long, it’s well worth listening to someone who did so and lived, as the saying goes, to tell the tale.

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A Return to Screwball

A rendition of a 1954 romantic comedy about the humorous toils of bachelorhood, the most significant limitation with Retro Productions’ The Tender Trap is the weight of its contextual framework. Whether or not an audience member is familiar with the play or its 1955 film version with Frank Sinatra, one is bound to expect outdated gender politics, eager-to please dialogue and a neatly packaged ending. But although the work itself delivers few surprises—women in the audience should expect to cringe at its hastily drawn conclusion—the intellect behind its dialogue and the devotion of its performers make for an experience that rings as close to authentic as the limitations of the material allow.

Set inside a Manhattan bachelor pad, The Tender Trap follows the romantic mishaps of Charlie Reader (Ric Sechrest) and his childhood friend Joe McCall (Jim Kilkenny) who escapes his suburban family life under the guise of a new business plan. Charlie is splitting his time between a number of women, all eager to demonstrate their potential for wifehood, but it’s professional musician Sylvia Crewes (Elise Rovinsky), whose poise and effortless humor lead Charlie to contemplate a deeper commitment—and attract Joe’s attention as well.

As Charlie, Sechrest doesn’t possess Sinatra’s playful sex appeal, and instead chooses to play up his boyish lack of self-awareness and consequent relatability –his harmless immaturity, in fact, recalls a modern Judd Apatow hero. Kilkenny, meanwhile, emphasizes Joe’s preference for sarcasm and his lived wisdom. The contrast between the characters is effective: banter between Charlie and Joe makes up some of the play’s most entertaining moments, as we can easily imagine a shared history between the two best friends. Sechrest and Kilkenny even manage make dated lines like “holy mackerel” sound effortless and convincing.

It’s the women, however, who add unexpected depth to the production. Casandera Lollar is charming as Julie Gillis, a woman in her early 20s who is eagerly laying out her future as a housewife. Lollar successfully channels an element of wit into a role that could just as easily have descended into cliché. As Sylvia, Elise Rovinsky displays mature beauty through her controlled gestures and a dancer’s posture. Charlie helplessly bosses her around like his other conquests, but she appears to be in on the joke. Having some of the productions most memorable lines works in Rovinsky's favor as well: A monologue in which she reveals her fears about being single at 33 is a jarring moment in an otherwise lighthearted work.

The quality of its performances is, without a doubt, what makes The Tender Trap memorable. In addition to the strong lead performances, supporting players like Alex Herrald as erratic scientist Earl Lindquist help establish the production as a powerful display of New York’s dramatic talent.

An outdated feel prevails through The Tender Trap; like It’s a Wonderful Life or Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it hints at subtle tragedies behind its formulaic story arc. That these societal questions aren’t fully addressed is likely to frustrate a viewer. The Tender Trap doesn’t make us nostalgic for a time gone by, but its convincing performances extract real intelligence from its bubbly dialogue.

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Return of the King (Oedipus: The Special Edition)

I was recently talking to a playwright who does a lot of work in regional theaters all around the country. He grumbled that he was having a hard time getting his work produced, joking that all of the big theaters are "only interested in plays about f**ked up families." Well, he shouldn't feel too bad; the Pearl Theater Company's sharp but ultimately academic production of The Oedipus Cycle has convinced me that all theater in the western world was founded on a proud heritage of f**ked up families. The name Oedipus, for those of you who have never read… well… anything or met a psychologist, refers to a mythic Greek king from Thebes who unwittingly murdered his father and bedded his own mother afterwards. This doesn't work out very well for him or his children. Sophocles' Oedipus Cycle consists of three smaller plays from three separate trilogies – Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone — and spans three generations, with each exploring the historic tragedy of the Oedipal family. The Pearl Theater's production marks the debut of a brisk new translation by Peter Constantine that condenses the whole cycle into three hours.

What most struck me about Constantine's translation was the seeming focus on Ancient Greek religion, which, according to some quick research online, isn't usually the hallmark of the Sophocles text. Here, nearly every big action is preceded or followed by a speech bemoaning that character's "fate" or "destiny" or "curse." This deterministic mindset is almost belabored in the script, but it certainly raises interesting questions about accountability. For instance, in Oedipus at Colonus the audience has probably forgiven old, self-blinded Oedipus – after all, he was destined to kill his father and have intercourse with his mother. If Apollo prophesied it, what could Oedipus do about it?

In terms of the modern significance of the Oedipus story, should blaming his unfortunate circumstances on the gods allow Oedipus to shrug off responsibility for his actions? Don't we tell these stories so we can learn how characters deal with the consequences of their mistakes? Or do we go to theater just to see a series of events unfold by divine intervention? In exploring these different interpretations, I'm not saying that Constantine's translation fails in any way. I only point them out because these questions seem to lead to a place of undeniable interest… directly into the heart of Western Theater. Constantine and director Shepard Sobel attack most of the material admirably, molding a taut infrastructure that emphasizes brevity, but is still loose enough to leave room for these big ideas of guilt and destiny.

Part one of the evening, Oedipus the King, succeeds nicely because Sobel and Constantine open with such an air of confidence and contentment in the character of Oedipus. Aided of course by Jay Stratton’s punchy performance as the Theban king, the character's initial happiness enhances his inevitable fall at the end of the narrative. After restoring peace to Thebes, Oedipus learns that bringing the former king's murderer to justice is the only cure for a sickness spreading through his kingdom. The murderer turns out to be Oedipus, of course, and the former king turns out to be his father, whose widow Oedipus married and sired children with. Any contemporary actor playing the title role has an unenviable task towards the end – the moaning devastation of Oedipus must be mythological in scale, Stratton succeeds admirably at this, along with the rest of the largely game cast. Dominic Cuskern and TJ Edwards, as Tiresias and a Shepard respectively, are particularly deft.

Probably the least produced of the cycle and also the last full play by Sophocles, Sobel and Constantine's Oedipus at Colonus presents an emotive portrayal of the last days of Oedipus. Exiled from Thebes by his own sons years after part one, the now blind Oedipus and his daughters wander into the sacred area called Colonus, just outside Athens. It seems Oedipus' two sons have gone to war over the throne of Thebes and the embittered old man wants nothing more than for his violent brood to destroy themselves. Mr. Edwards takes over the role of Oedipus, lending him much charm and pathos. In one very sympathetic moment he says of his past, “I suffered these deeds more than committed them.” Also, Jolly Abraham's performance as Antigone is superb. The only drawback in this terrific "second act" is the unfortunate double casting of Susan Heyward as Ismene and Polynices – though the concept of casting one performer as two of Oedipus' children is strong, Ms. Heyward's portrayal of Polynices the soldier reads as overly meek.

With Antigone, Constantine and Sobel’s production runs out of steam, despite an unswervingly strong performance from Ms. Abraham in the lead role. In the aftermath of the violent war between Oedipus’ sons – Polynices and Eteocles – his daughter Antigone faces death for defying King Creon and attempting to bury one of her dead and dishonored brothers. John Livingston Rolle gives a solid turn as Creon, as does Ms. Heyward in her reprisal of Ismene, but somewhere along the way the lack of urgency in Antigone’s predicament causes this Antigone peter out.

Throughout the evening Constantine and Sobel call on the magnetic Ms. Heyward to deliver all the “bad news speeches” or epilogues. In one such speech she says, “These things are now unalterable in their authority.” Though compellingly staged and faultlessly designed, The Pearl Theater’s Oedipus Cycle mostly feels like an interesting experiment in practicality and so never seeks to become the “unalterable authority” on the Oedipus mythos. That said: it is a perfectly viable, accessible means of experiencing Western Theater’s original f***ked up family.

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Killing Them Softly

To quote an infamous misquote, “what a terrible thing to have lost one’s mind.” That bit of dystopian nostalgia suddenly seems a bit easier to take after the election results this week. In this case, the two diaries of diseased psyches investigated in Memoirs of Madness, is, instead, a pleasure. Capping the eerie Halloween season (as well as an exhausting campaign season) with retellings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, My Fair Heathen Productions presents fairly stripped-down versions of the two stories, each told by a disturbed narrator, which delight in their simplicity and chilly nakedness. Most women’s literature students are familiar with Gilman’s haunting late 19th century story, which was semi-autobiographical and damning of her doctor’s naïve and sometimes deadly prescription for his “hysterical” female patients—forced bed rest. That may sound fairly innocuous, perhaps even tempting, for those of us working a tough daily grind. But Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell’s “Rest Cure” was insidious and disempowering, an essential imprisonment, for women suffering from depression or other emotional problems, leading in some cases to insanity and/or death. In Gilman’s essay, “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper,” she explains that her book was “not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked,” as the once-acclaimed doctor eventually altered his treatment.

Megan O’Leary fully embodies the Gilman narrator, taking us along on her journey from her arrival in the rambling country estate when she first seems to feel earnest and obedient about her “rest,” which has been prescribed by the character’s doctor husband, similar in tone to the real-life Dr. Mitchell. The set is minimal, showing a simple bed with wooden headboard, a window, and a comfortable chair, in the room in which she is forced to remain, with its tattered wallpaper and ironic history as a former nursery that has fallen to ruin.

With references to a new baby and a live-in mother’s helper, it’s clear that she’s suffering from what is now commonly known (and treated) as postpartum depression. But as the character begins to feel more trapped, alienated, and isolated in her confined quarters, we witness her become more obsessive, secretive, and disturbed, to the point where the yellow wallcovering, and more frighteningly, what she sees in it, takes over the entire focus of her mind. O’Leary achieves this by growing more frantic and restless, confiding her fears and plans, while still largely retaining her appeasing smile and outward pleasantries, as she tries to conceal her true torment from the others. This has a creepy as well as a believable effect.

Her demise is also expressed by a bit of a crumbling Victorian tune played between scenes. Some of her visions are brought to life via projected images on the walls, which seem realistic as to her description of them, but I wondered if they could have been executed in a bit more frightening or tormenting way. Given the technological advances of our age in contrast, maybe a somewhat more expressionistic version of the yellow wallpaper would have been interesting. However, the effects used here did seem to fit the setting and did not take away from the character’s storytelling.

The second piece, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, written about 50 years earlier, is also told by a singular narrator and works equally well in the same set, now as the bedroom of the old man and soon-to-be victim. With more dramatic lighting, including the entrance and effective first words of the narrator given in total darkness, Poe’s character, played by Gretchen Knapp, immediately grips us with his all-too-sensible madness. Knapp’s gender play is well done, with no discernable difference to the familiar Poe character, only that much more of an intriguing performance to see and hear. Dressed in period garb with her long hair pulled back, Knapp commands the audience’s attention, and even with the piece’s shorter length, there’s certainly no shortage of impact.

Poe’s genius in making the narrator seem so sincere, and yet ultimately undone by the overworkings of his own mind, is entertaining and well nuanced here. One-person narrated shows can sometimes be tough to execute, but both Knapp and O’Leary carry their roles strongly, and the direction by Janet Bobcean succeeds in sustaining their efforts, as well as staying true to the source material. The two selections as companion pieces bookend nicely together: one with its female, internal struggles; and the other with its more male, outward actions.

It was even fun to revisit the familiar Poe story in a post-CSI mindset. I mean, come on, dismember and squire away body parts under the floorboards with “no stain of any kind, no blood-spot whatever,” really? After years of believing this narrator, I think I finally got it that perhaps those chatty policemen weren’t just idly hanging around, but maybe waiting like the rest of us to see if the innocent neighbor would reveal himself. Thanks to My Fair Heathen for dusting off these gems, revisiting them with aplomb, as well as inspiring them to be viewed in new ways.

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Rome If You Want To

18th century essayist and poet Joseph Addison’s best-remembered work is the 1712 play Cato: a Tragedy, a work so classic and resonant George Washington himself purportedly used speeches from it to inspire troops, commissioning a production during the American Revolution. The play, addressing such subjects as the importance of freedom, the corruption of tyrannical rule, and valor in battle, made for a logical choice. It makes for an equally logical choice for Jim Simpson to mount the show at The Flea, timed for a polarizing presidential election. And while Cato may be three centuries old, and set before the Common Era, his production makes this tale completely accessible.

Addison himself dabbled in politics, having served as Under-Secretary of State for the Whig party, and his experience informed his writing. Cato occurs in the year 46 B.C. in the city of Utica, in Numidia, where the title character Cato (André De Shields) is the last Roman holdout against Julius Caesar, whose mighty army approaches to battle his mightiest remaining foe. Cato surrounds himself with two advisors, the peaceful Lucius (Brian O'Neill) and the violent, untrustworthy Sempronius (Anthony Cochrane). Sempronius, however, has his own ideas about how to use the Numidian army for personal benefit.

The plot isn’t only political, of course; Addison’s web also has its romantic entanglements. Cato’s sons Marcus (Jake Green) and Portius (Ross Cowan) both pine for Lucia (Holly Chou), Lucius’ daughter, while Cato's daughter Marcia (Carly Zien) has her own admirer in Juba (Eric Lockley), a Numidian prince.

Simpson’s bare-bones approach, with Zack Tinkelman’s unadorned set, Claudia Brown’s muted costume design, and all actors offstage sitting on benches where they can be seen, allows his audience to focus on the plot at hand. I also appreciated Simpson’s choice of color-blind casting, though I can see how it might confuse some audience members. Cato is white, though De Shields is African-American, with white children.

Nonetheless, the seasoned cast overcomes this minor obstacle. De Shields is quite the commanding presence as the stoic leader. The title character is strength incarnate. Cato does everything right – he lives by a code of honor, dignity and strength. It is easy for such a man to feel, well, like something more than a man, but De Shields digs beneath Addison’s language to portray a man with real heart and human connection. It helps, perhaps, that De Shields, a veteran of such shows as Ain’t Misbehavin’ and The Wiz is also a musician and choreographer. His sense of movement and rhythm is integral to Cato. De Shields’ every step, gesticulation and voice modulation are carefully measured and perfectly justified, setting the tone for the whole show.

While the tone is spot-on, I did have some quibbles with Simpson’s pacing, particularly at the production’s end. As the plot unfurls and and events escalate, the show languishes, slowing right when it should heat up. Several scenes drop in when by this time, they should proceed at a more clipped pace to maximize dramatic effect.

Fortunately, the rest of the cast follows De Shields’ lead. Cochrane, for example, convincingly allows the seeds of betrayal to take root as Cato unfolds. Many of the most successful scenes in the show are enacted by Cato’s younger actors, a large number of whom are members of the Bats, the Flea’s repertory troupe. They have a professional grasp of Addison’s language, and find the urgency in the character’s lives so that their portrayals feel fresh and relevant. Lockley’s and Zien’s scenes together, in particular, suggest a very humanistic element as they fumble back and forth with the trappings of misunderstood young love. Cowan and Green are also effective in their scenes together.

Simpson’s production of Cato brings history to vivid life. I can only hope that whatever changes the incoming new administration brings, we only have to re-live Addison’s lessons on the stage.

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