Keeping House

Founded after World War I as a means of creating industrial design to compliment modernist lifestyles, the Bauhaus school of design was ultimately shut down by the Nazis, who were suspicious of its modernist innovations. Yet the impact of the Bauhaus movement didn't end there. Its legacy takes center stage in Chance D. Muehleck's new play, which examines the Bauhaus movement through multimedia performance. Much like its subject matter, bauhaus the bauhaus, produced by The Nerve Tank at the Brooklyn Lyceum, is a thoughtful, well-researched project that demonstrates keen insight into contemporary life. In the tradition of the Bauhaus school, Nerve Tank's creativity compensates for the uneveness of this experimental work. As the audience files into rows of folding chairs in the raw, open space of the Lyceum, the ensemble cast, dressed in white lab coats, neon gloves and wigs, paces across the floor. Their short, staccato steps become a dominant choreographic trope of the performance, which employs both precision of movement and stylized absurdities. The company does not always strike a desired balance between discipline and goofiness; often one quality overwhelms the other. When the balance is achieved, it creates a terrific dynamic that contributes to some of the production's strongest moments, as when one performer delivers a clever House that Jack Built inspired poem ("This is a wheel that becomes a bed that...") while a second performer executes a series of movements in conjunction with the rhyme. Neither pantomime nor wholly abstracted, the choreography grants the poem a transmutable embodiment. It's a prescient dramatization of a design aesthetic which aimed to create physical forms to support modern behavior.

As the Lyceum's current resident company, Nerve Tank fully inhabits the space. Under Melanie Armer's direction, little energy is lost to the Lyceum's distant ceilings or the playing space's excess areas. In keeping with Bauhaus emphasis on streamlined design and a lack of ornamentation, stage designer Solomon Weisbard has created a single, three-tiered white structure in the back of the playing space on which performers stand and images are projected. Video by Shawn X. Duan is also, at times, projected onto the brick walls and the Lyceum floor, further inhabiting the space by creating multiple focuses of attention. Perhaps more significantly, given the theme of the production, the video points to cultural shifts from industrial to digital design. Sound designer Stephan Moore likewise plays with the contrast between digitized and industrialized ontologies through his use of musique concrète, electronic music which looks beyond traditional instruments for compositional material. In that sense, though digital rather than industrial, the sound design parallels Bauhaus ideology, which advocated the exploitation of available resources by skilled craftsmen.

Muehleck's script weaves together a lot of diverse material, with text ranging from an M.A. thesis on Bauhaus performativity to copy from an Ikea catalog. Armer keeps the mood light and the pace up so that the collage of scenes shifts easily from one to another. A central irony of bauhaus the bauhaus lies in its skilled use of postmodern playwrighting techniques (collage, pastiche, repetition, nonlinear plot) to critique a school of design synonymous with modernism. That's an interesting answer to the play's question of legacy.

For more information on The Nerve Tank and bauhaus the bauhaus, see our Off the Cuff interview with Melanie Armer here.

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Searching for a Promised Land

Next Year in Jerusalem, written by Dana Leslie Goldstein and directed by Robert Bruce McIntosh, is a realistic portrait of the American Jewish family in the twentieth century. The play encompasses two interlocking storylines: the contemporary tale of an elderly Abraham Mendel and his interactions with his two grown daughters, and the memories of his escape from Poland in 1939, his time fighting for Israel, and his decision to immigrate to the United States. Abraham finds himself in a difficult bind: he is torn between the pull of Jewish tradition and the increasingly modern lives of his children, the reserved Rachel and the flamboyant Faustine. The power of Abraham’s Jewish history, identity, and tradition is at the heart of the drama and gives the play its real poignancy and soul. Abraham, like Tevye before him, must weigh the value of tradition against the importance of family. In so doing, he must reevaluate what he loves most – that which is right in front of him in the form of his family or that which he left behind in his promised land.

This preoccupation with the force of tradition is movingly manifested in the Seder scene. Anna, Abraham’s now-deceased wife, is seen at the back of the house as she was 50 years ago, carrying candles and singing in Hebrew. As she approaches the stage, the contemporary family is revealed and Abraham’s young granddaughter shares in the rite, reading the customary questions of the Haggadah. This simple staging evokes the complexity of this ritual. As distant as one may personally feel from these deeds, they are what tie the current generation to their ancestral past as Jews. These practices are done because their parents did them before them, and their parents before them.

Burt Edwards gives a strong performance as Abraham Mendel. He is both sympathetic and at times tyrannical, as any old-school father may seem. Jake Robards, who plays both Abraham as a young man and the Israeli lawyer that Abraham brings home as a suitor for Faustine, is exceptionally well-suited to both roles. The choice to double these roles throws into relief the similarity between Faustine and her father – a fact that is a potential cause of their constant conflicts.

The family drama has highs and lows; some of the scenes between Rachel and her husband Lee add little to the overall narrative. The central story arc – that of an old man facing his own mortality in light of an ever-changing world – is at times heartwrenching. Its easy to get lost in, to face this family’s pain and, in so doing, one’s own family heartaches. The play ends with a toast, a kind of celebration, despite some darker moments in the play’s second act. Each year at Passover there is similar joy in the remembrance that the Jewish people were delivered by G-d. And there is hope: next year in Jerusalem.

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Hard Times in Hell's Kitchen

Two massive electrical outages during two very different decades provide a conceptual framework for J. Anthony Roman's Blackouts, currently being produced by Swandive Studio at Center Stage. The play, an exploration of the problems of addiction, family, and responsibility, has serious flaws yet manages to pose a few interesting questions. Blackouts' first act presents two married couples, Eddy and Sarah and Janice and Phil. Eddy is an artist who dabbles in cocaine while in the throes of creation. While Phil gives up his fly-by-night lifestyle in favor of a steady but unrewarding career, Eddy stakes his entire future on one gamble, quiting his job and betting on success as an artist. When his endeavor ends badly, Eddy descends into addiction, throwing his life and his family away during a blackout in 1977.

The second act picks up the family's story a generation later, in 2003, with Eddy and Sarah's adult son James living in the same Hell's Kitchen apartment with his wife Evy and newborn son. Roman's script falters with this second family, turning James and Evy's relationship into a reflection of his parents'. The impulse to show the generational effect of addiction is admirable, but the second half of the story comes across as a pale imitation of the first. The trajectory of the act is telegraphed from the moment that Evy enters and pours herself a glass of wine. Worse, in the final moments of the play, Roman shies away from James' dramatic and difficult decision to save himself by walking away from his alcoholic wife.

Nevertheless, Roman's script does some things very well. His writing has an almost filmic quality, full of short scenes which combine to form a portrait of his characters' lives; this is most effective in a powerful first act "montage" of scenes depicting Eddy's descent into the hell of addiction.

Roman also creates some solid characters. Sarah, for instance, is admirably drawn. Her final confrontation with her fleeing, drug-addled husband is heartbreaking and believable. The strength of her text is aided by a strong, understated performance by Jamie Klassel, who doubles in the second act as the appealingly goofy Cyan. Phil, strikingly portrayed by Zachary Fletcher, is a compelling foil to Eddy, and Lisa Snyder's flirtatious and materialistic Janice has such a strong personality that it would have been interesting to see more of her. Although Max Woertendyke is appealing as both Eddy and James, he tends to rush through his monologues, making his characters somewhat difficult to follow in their most pivotal moments.

Director Jill DeArmon's production is solid and exceptionally well-designed. Set designer Jen Price Fick has created an attractive urban apartment for the action, complete with exposed brick, grungy gray carpeting, and a cutaway wall which offers a view across the courtyard to the apartment of Eddy and Sarah's next-door-neighbors and best friends. The set is well-designed and the transformation from the first act to the second clearly depicts the different means and interests of the two different generations of inhabitants. Unfortunately, the intermission scene shift took an ungainly 30 minutes, much longer than seemed necessary.

The costumes, designed by Hollie Nadel, were solid, as was the lighting design by Joshua Rose, who created a highly realistic effect of headlights passing the apartment's street-front windows. Shane Rettig's sound design deserves a special nod; he provided believable street sounds which, when the city was plunged into the blackout, slowly turned into the frenzied honking and traffic noises of impending gridlock. He also managed to provide the show with a reasonably believable cooing baby.

Although the second act of Blackouts is disappointing, the play does divert and -- with the addition of appealing performances and strong design -- is a decent evening of theater. Hopefully, Roman will continue to explore these characters and concepts in his future work.

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Little Girl, Big Show

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s long life on the frontier certainly provided her with plenty of storytelling fodder – enough, at least for eleven novels and ten television seasons. And yet somehow, when many of the early highlights are compressed into one piece, as they are in Little House on the Prairie – The Musical,” currently playing at the Paper Mill Playhouse, the work feels oddly lacking. It is likely that the creative team of this family-friendly musical relies too heavily on fans of the long-running television incarnation, which starred Michael Landon as Pa Ingalls and then-child star Melissa Gilbert as protagonist Laura, to be the chief audience. Well, Gilbert may be all grown up, but she’s still attached to the Prairie. Now, she plays Ma Ingalls, a much slighter role, but one that nonetheless is designed to draw in nostalgists.

I say this because the show does very little to stand on its own. Despite a long out-of-town tryout process – Prairie has already played the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and has replaced much of its original book and score – the show still plays as though it is in draft form. Rachel Sheinkin replaced Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Beth Henley, the original scribe who first helped shape the musical, and perhaps some of her narrative grace notes went with her. (Donna di Novelli provides the lyrics.) The current result plays mostly as a checklist of boldface events from the early novels.

I say “current” because I firmly believe that Prairie still has plenty of room to grow. It certainly isn’t lacking in talent, particularly in the form of Kara Lindsay in the leading role of Laura, a precocious young tomboy. Over the course of the show, Laura learns to mind her parents and schoolteachers, support her family when older sister Mary loses her sight, make amends with nemesis Nellie Oleson, feels the joy of breaking through to schoolhouse pupils, and even finds a love of her own (there’s little mystery as to who the lucky guy might be when the talented Kevin Massey first appears as Almanzo Wilder.) Lindsay, who is also a terrific singer, ably plays beneath her real age, and gradually bridges Laura’s maturation in ways the episodic script doesn’t provide for her.

But what the show cannot do is delve into the culture of the lifestyle it sets out to portray. Director Francesa Zambello erred in similar fashion with her last show, the musical adaptation of The Little Mermaid. Both shows impress as spectacles, but offer less beneath the surface. The technical elements are there, but they lack inspiration. Similarly, Michele Lynch choreographs several professional ensemble numbers, but they feel rote and do little to enhance the story.

As a result, one never feels the hardship of prairie life, even as a raging fire destroys the Ingalls’ wheat prospects, nor does the viewer get the chance to fully grasp the details of the Homestead Act that grants the Wilders and the other settlers their right to sojourn to the unsettled Dakota territory in the first place. Instead, the audience is stuck watching them from afar, as events befall the Wilders in too fast and frequent a manner. The view gets a little better in Prairie’s slightly protracted second act, when Laura comes into her own as both teacher and woman; one hopes that this storytelling sensibility will work its way into more of the show as it continues its run.

Nonetheless, Alessa Neeck and Carly Rose Sonenclar hold their own with the material as Laura’s sisters, and Loprest acquits herself well as the mischievous Nellie. Steve Blanchard is a solid Pa Ingalls. In fact, the weakest link in this musical chain is actually Gilbert herself. The actress handles her dialogue with the ease of a pro, and proves she can dance with the best of them during the show’s curtain call, but her talk-singing though the show’s eleventh-hour number, “Wild Child,” leaves a bit to be desired.

Still, there is nothing in Prairie that cannot be improved with some effort. The Ingalls’ journey is one worth taking, and hopefully, one that will continue to improve in time.

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Night of the Living Drag

Wedged in the oh-so-narrow crevice between obnoxious schlock and sublimity lies The Diary of Anne Frankenstein, an at times horrific piecemeal of 50’s horror tropes, Nazi Germany, and drag dazzle presented by Theatre A L’Orange. It’s also sharply staged, cunningly written, and frequently disturbing in its hilariousness. Set in the secret laboratory of a German castle (designed to a B-Movie T by Chesley Allen) in 1945, Anne weaves an unsettling tale of a botched Nazi experiment, wherein Dr. Frankenstein’s buxom Aryan superwoman Anne is born with… well… a little something extra. Banished to the castle’s attic for years with only a sassy talking diary to keep her company, Anne’s chances at freedom and love increase when her long lost creator returns to his old lab, with the reanimated head of Adolph Hitler in tow. After two foppish Americans show up looking for lodging, the whole affair spins into kitschy, chaotic madness of the best kind.

As mentioned above, Anne might have ended up as a mere pastiche of plot elements from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Frankenstein, and, yes, The Diary of Anne Frank – but playwright Ilya Sapiroe’s clever script fuses the spirits of these various sources (and genres) in a quite agreeable way. The device that houses Hilter’s reanimated head, for instance, gives an appropriately retro-horror vibe, and simultaneously renders the Fuehrer as a gibbering idiot. Another particularly nice convention, well handled by the game director Elizabeth Elkins, is the personification of Anne’s diary, as portrayed by the deliciously laconic Lavinia Co-op. The vampy Co-op wears an oversized open book headdress, pops in like the Cheshire Cat, and cajoles Anne into compromising situations. It is also worth noting that there are several amusing musical numbers by Kevin Cummines.

The play’s overall success obviously owes much to Mimi Imfurst, the celebrated drag queen who plays the childlike, but occasionally baritone Anne. The way that Imfurst bounces giddily after graphically disemboweling a victim elicits a strange blend of awkward sympathy and humorous disconnect. At times, the audience is meant to root for Anne, yet at other times we are meant to fear her. Like all the other mash-ups provided by Sapiroe’s farce, Imfurst gregariously milks this imbalance to hysterical effect.

Joseph Beuerlein, Geoffrey Borman, Ryan Feyk, Jessica Caplan, and Eric Jaeger round out the willing cast, with Feyk’s decapitated goofball Hitler and Borman’s gangly terror Fritz leaving the most lasting impressions. As an ensemble, the cast in general excels at whatever singing, role swapping, and shenanigans are required. It’s always nice to see a cast have a good time with material, and this makes a bizarre, unquantifiable show like Anne that much easier to enjoy.

As a final note, I want to address the title, The Diary of Anne Frankenstein, specifically. It is a title obviously constructed for maximum offense and one that hopes to draw a crowd based on morbid curiosity alone. There are those who will be supportive of this audacious move and those who will be flabbergasted. On two occasions I avoided referring to the show by name, for fear of being dragged into some unfortunate discussion of appropriateness with someone from the latter camp. That said: mission accomplished Mr. Sapiroe. You both piqued my interest and made me embarrassed to say why.

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Misery, Love, and Company

If InProximity Theatre Company’s second production doesn’t match the success of their inaugural, Orange Flower Water, it’s nothing to do with a sophomore jinx. The five-member cast, along with the sterling designers, do pretty well by Nicky Silver’s downbeat story of unrequited love, but the play seems to have been chosen more for the wide range of emotions it allows the actors to display rather than for its coherence. Silver, who can be one of the funniest writers around (The Food Chain, Raised in Captivity), sets up some amusing situations in the first half of The Maiden’s Prayer, but even then things proceed a bit choppily. At the wedding of Cynthia (Laurie Schaefer) and Taylor (Josh Clayton), Cynthia’s brassy sister Libby (Jolie Curtsinger) gets drunk and disorderly. Libby dated Taylor for three weeks and was in love with him, but Cynthia, in her eyes, stole him away. Meanwhile, Taylor’s boyhood friend Paul (Jonathan Todd Ross) becomes enmeshed in the family squabble. The gay Paul is a serial dater, and humor arises as his friends struggle to remember who the current flame is. But Paul’s character deepens, and he becomes the anchor for the story, as Cynthia miscarries and setbacks occur to change everyone’s lives.

Director Terry Berliner finds the laughs in the first half, provided mostly by Ari Rossen, initially as several of Paul’s dates, but primarily as Andrew, a trick who won’t leave and who speaks periodically in monologues to the audience. (Other characters also have monologues, which advance the story by fits and starts.) When Paul ends up moving to avoid Andrew, there’s a flash of the unrestrained loopy comedy that is Silver’s trademark, but it’s only momentary: what prevails is an inconsistency of tone.

The inventive Berliner has mounted the play in traverse, and James J. Fenton provides an outdoor patio and weatherbeaten, paint-stripped arbors, trellises, and backyard gates, supplemented with extraordinary detail by family photographs and rusted wire bric-a-brac. Fenton encompasses both halves of the audience into the setting: behind one tier of seats is the shingled wall of the house; behind the other is a backyard fence. At times the set serves as Paul’s apartment or a restaurant, and it’s lighted carefully by Cory Pattak not only to provide the appropriate atmosphere but to distinguish the swiftly changing scenes on the small stage.

Strangely, Berliner has simply ignored some aspects of the text that should have been altered. References to Taylor’s blond hair (Clayton is decidedly a redhead) and a childhood tetherball court “under this tree” where there’s a fence make no sense. And if Cynthia tells Taylor to return a tricycle he’s assembling, it ought not to look like something from a salvage sale.

With so many colors to play, the actors prove generally adept but have occasional weak points. Clayton starts out as a bland love object (in addition to Taylor’s wife and sister-in law, Paul has had a bit of a crush on him since their childhood), but his character has little to do except be overprotective, and since “he never loses his temper,” he registers as an annoying noodge. Late in the play the actor comes on strong with frustrated affection and enervation, stumbling just a bit in a crucial drunk scene, where he alternates moments of startling immediacy, as he seems almost asleep on his feet, with boilerplate drunkenness.

Early on, Schaefer’s Cynthia is a nice, smiling counterpoint to the jealous sibling Libby insists she is, but there’s no way to sympathize with her behavior in the second half of the play (without, perhaps, having suffered post-partum depression oneself). The brassy Curtsinger comes on too strong at first, and her Libby doesn’t garner much sympathy—and loses some laughs—but eventually she settles down and in her quieter scenes she’s more effective. Yet Libby gains sympathy partly by default, because Cynthia’s behavior becomes more reprehensible, particularly in the slogging second half, where Silver ratchets up the angst level to soap opera.

Ross is a steadfast Paul—loyal friend, sex object, wry sidekick, and reluctant mediator, and he carries off all those roles successfully, a solid touchstone for the chaos whirling around him. Ultimately, though, the actors are let down by the script with its arbitrary plot twists and its obvious message—unrequited love is painful and messy, but one can recover. There’s a great deal of talent at InProximity, but one hopes the next project matches it to a worthier script.

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Story of a Life

The deal made at the outset of Mac Rogers’ Viral is a fairly morbid one: Meredith wants to end her life, and has found a trio of people eager to help her do so in a dignified way. That Rogers treats this subject manner in a straightforward manner instead of undercutting it with humor or playing it for pathos is the first clue that this polished show knows exactly what it is doing. Amy Lynn Stewart is the enigmatic Meredith. We never learn the whats and whys about her, her background, her sorrow, or why she feels the best course of action is to commit suicide, and yet this uncertainty doesn’t matter. In Stewart’s hands, Meredith is a three-dimensional woman. Whatever happened in her past to make her opt to cut short her future is her business. We’re just lucky to witness her in the present.

Colin (Kent Meister) and his roommates must also feel lucky to encounter Meredith. His girlfriend, Geena (Rebecca Comtois) finds her online, on a “painless suicide” site. The two of them, along with Geena’s brother, Jarvis (Matthew Trumbull), are looking to recruit a subject willing to let them record her committing suicide on camera. Though the three, who are also roommates, plan to sell the video, profit is not their chief interest. The three find aesthetic beauty in the willful passing from life to death.

Director Jordana Williams does a tremendous job steering the show from start to finish. There isn’t a wasted moment, and Rogers’ excellent script escalates appropriately. (Viral is playing as part of the FringeNYC Encore Series, after winning the festival’s Outstanding Play Award, Rogers’ third in five years.)

She is also blessed with a sterling cast. Stewart is amazing – even while adjusting to Colin and Geena’s world, her Meredith never fully gives herself away. Meister is terrific as Colin, who is so blinded by his mission that he forgets how to deal with people properly. Comtois radiates insecurity as Geena, and Trumbull engenders sympathy as the ne’er-do-well Jarvis. Additionally, the two demonstrate such chemistry that it is easy to believe they might be siblings. Jonathan Pereira is also spot-on in a late role as a film distributor.

Viral is an honest work that offers plenty to think about. I hope to see it reach more people in another incarnation soon.

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Brotherly Love

John Ford's titillating play 'Tis a Pity She's a Whore is a controversial work which plumbs the depths of incest, adultery, vengeance, and murder. Originally produced in the 17th century, Ford's sex- and gore-filled story about the love affair of a pair of siblings may seem slightly less sensational in our tabloid-centered modern world. Nevertheless, Toy Box Theatre Company's recent rendition is a solid, well-acted and well-designed production which definitely diverts. Ford's play follows the illicit love of Giovanni for his comely sister, Annabella. Unable to suppress his feelings, Giovanni confesses his passion to her. She reciprocates at once, consummating their relationship and rejecting all her other suitors. When Annabella's pregnancy forces her to marry the playboy Soranzo to cover up her transgressions, a cycle of betrayal and vengeance begins which can only end with a large pile of dead bodies.

Toy Box Theatre Company is offering a trimmed-down version of 'Tis a Pity She's a Whore which nevertheless clocks in at a hefty two-and-a-half hours. The loss of a single subplot doesn't harm the thrust of the story, but the trimmed cast of characters does lead to some improbable redistributions of lines, most notably when a regular friar suddenly has the authority to banish foreigners from the city.

This production is grounded by solid performances from the cast, particularly by Andrew Krug as Giovanni and Jessica Rothenberg as Annabella. Krug, intense and gaunt, handles Ford's verse well, while Rothenberg skillfully manages her character's transition from hopeful young love to despair. Their chemistry is particularly good during their touching first kiss.

David Michael Holmes is excellent as the slippery Vasques, a servant of Soranzo who dabbles in double-dealing with Hippolita (Sarah Hankins), Soranzo's enraged former lover. Hankins's jilted woman is particularly strong, as she finds both the anger and the vulnerability in her character. She's equally good as Putana, Annabella's nurse, who is complicit in her master's incestuous affair. The goofy Michael Nathanson is a memorably comic Bergetto, a dim-witted and self-centered suitor who is only too glad to be rejected by Annabella so he can pursue another, more humble mistress.

Director Jonathan Barsness stages the show fairly well, particularly succeeding in tension in the scenes between Annabella and Soranzo and between the two sibling-lovers. His only missteps – a few too many scenes are played in profile and a sex scene staged on the floor, where the action is difficult to see – are mitigated by the brilliant twist he cooks up for the final moments of the play. Strange miracle of justice, indeed!

The costumes, designed by Jennifer Paar, are lovely. Giovanni's striped sweater and jeans are perfectly complemented by Annabella's color-coordinated Catholic school-girl outfit, while Soranzo cuts a handsome, wealthy figure in a gorgeous blue and paisley robe. Bergetto's improbably bright outfits are standouts and immediately define his character.

The handsome and functional set design by Gian Marco Lo Forte also deserves a nod: 'Tis a Pity... is performed in a simple, three sided black box created from one black curtain and two purple walls with black wainscoting. Two long, table-height cubes pull out from the walls for fairly quick transitions and allow for a surprising number of different set configurations. The blood-red chandelier which hangs center stage is a particularly nice touch.

The lighting design by Simon Cleveland is attractive, though there were a few scenes when the center of the stage was notably in shadow. The live music, provided by Colonna Sonora (Brady Bagger, James Sparber, and Christian Serramalera), is a welcome and pleasing addition to the show. Despite the occasional flaw, Toy Box Theatre Company's production of 'Tis a Pity ... would be a pity to miss.

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offoffonline Congratulates 2009 IT Awards Recipients

On Monday September 21, 2009, the IT Awards (New York Innovative Theatre Awards), together with host Julie Halston, announced the 2009 recipients at the Fifth Annual IT Awards Ceremony at New World Stages.

Highlights included Nilo Cruz's presentation of an Artistic Acheivement Award to Maria Irene Fornes and a screening of footage from a soon-to-be-released documentary about her life and work. Materials for the Arts received a Stewardship Award for their years of providing much-needed supplies to the Off-Off-Broadway theater community.

The Brick Theater, Inc. was awarded this year's Caffe Cino Fellowship Award. Jillian Zeman was presented with the first-ever Outstanding Stage Manager award for her work with Astoria Performing Arts Center's production of Ragtime.

A special shout-out goes to offoffonline Staff Writer Johnna Adams, whose play Angel Eaters was nominated for Outstanding Full-Length Script.

Congratulations to all those whose theatrical achievements and contributions were honored this year. We look forward to seeing more of your work.

For more information about the IT Awards and a complete list of winners, visit their official website

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(Video) Diary of a Madman

The inelegant, sweating, hyperventilating Franklin Elijah White (Richard Lovejoy) is desperate to tell us something of immense import. The frantic meteorologist employs a slide show of natural disasters and their aftermaths to demonstrate how the weather will some day destroy each of us, one by one. While playwright Stephen Aubrey effectively communicates Franklin’s mania, The Dark Heart of Meteorology ultimately fails to transcend the pitiable Franklin's befuddled fog. Franklin intimately understands the weather’s malevolence: his own father (also a meteorologist) and mother were struck by lightning and injured on their wedding day, and the weather relentlessly stalked them for the rest of their lives. To Franklin, these were shots across his own bow; he’s convinced that he’s doomed. The Dark Heart of Meteorology is a kind of Final Destination with the weather as the stalking, unstoppable predator (“See the sun? It hates us!”). The weather with a capital “W” is Franklin’s breathless obsession and serves as the metaphor for love, isolation and death. The unstated but bathetic realization of the play is that it’s not the weather that’s going to get Franklin; it’s his psychosis.

Mr. Lovejoy frequently overacts Franklin’s neurotic preoccupations and his klutziness. Franklin drops papers like an absent-minded professor and trips over himself, à la Chevy Chase. Yet, he isn’t a clown; he’s mentally ill. And what he finally tells us, as revealed in his late father’s mysterious manuscript, the title of which is that of the play, is disappointingly banal: entropy is our natural state. We’re all going to get it in the end, so enjoy life while you can. And, by the way: good luck with all that.

Stephen Aubrey’s script has hilarious moments of improbable, bizarre humor. In the fifth grade, Franklin’s father took him on a hot air balloon and the two steered at tornadic clouds. White’s great-great grandfather, the “personal meteorologist” for General William Tecumseh Sherman, died when a freak gust of wind blew a cannonball back into his face. Similarly, each in his family’s long line of meteorologists has been victimized by the weather. Unfortunately, Mr. Lovejoy doesn’t quite maximize the punch of these absurd comic gems; they frequently fall a bit flat.

Like the luckless rock band, Spinal Tap, Franklin goes from fame to lame during the course of the play. Fired by his network after an on-air breakdown, he’s soon delivering his apocalyptic slide show in the basement of a place called The Greater Star Apostolic Church. He’s spiraling downward in a funnel cloud all his own and nothing, he believes, can stop that fall.

The best parts of The Dark Heart of Meteorology involve clever visual interludes by Aubrey and video designer Alex Koch that chronicle Franklin’s psychic dismantling; his video blogs become increasingly weird and ominous. Franklin’s last “lecture,” a poignant slide show backed by Kepi Ghoulie’s eerie acoustic version of his song “Stormy Weather,” encapsulates, better than Franklin himself, what Mr. Aubrey is trying to communicate through his faltering, stuttering, and sometimes nonsensical hero: that, for some, life will be short and terrible, but we should never cease trying to help and protect each other, in spite of the potential for horror.

It’s easy to invent a character that’s not quite sane. It’s harder to make his insanity resonate with the rest of us, to unearth brilliance or even community in madness. Mr. Aubrey has done a great job of illustrating Franklin’s psychosis, yet Franklin has little to convey to us other than his pathetic urgency and crippling paranoia. This flaw is not aided by director Jess Chayne’s seeming uncertainty about whether this 60-minute show is a comedy or drama; in the end, it winds up being a bit of neither.

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Less Is More

With all the theatrical marvels that modern technology can create, it is easy to forget that at its core, effective theater requires very little: an actor, an audience, and a good story to tell. Fiasco Theater's current production of Cymbeline is an excellent exemplar of how to create great theater with the most minimal of means. Using just six actors, a specially-designed trunk, and a trimmed version of William Shakespeare's words, the company creates an intelligently performed and thoroughly diverting production. Cymbeline, a rarely produced late work, is a romance filled with disguises, lost children, mistaken identities, and a love story which seems fated to be tragic, but has a happy ending. The elderly British monarch of the title, manipulated by his evil second wife, strikes out when his daughter and heir, Imogen, marries a honorable but low-born Roman named Posthumus Leonatus. Upon his exile to Rome, Posthumus makes a wager on his wife's virtue and is misled by his unscrupulous opponent into thinking Imogen compromised; enraged, he orders her death. Eventually, the action of the play moves to Wales where a battle between the Britons and the Romans results in reconciliation between the lovers and a reunion between Cymbeline and his two long-lost sons.

Fiasco's adaptation cuts the text down to a fast-paced two hours and fifteen characters and adds a whimsical a capella preshow announcement and several folksy, entertaining musical numbers. The trims work well, although it was difficult to track who was portraying whom during the first moments of the final scene, when nearly all the characters show up to contribute to the play's resolution. That stated, considering that a mere five performers portray fourteen of the characters, it's impressive how clearly and quickly they could establish their current identities.

Part of the credit for that clarity goes to the elegant direction by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, who also performed in the piece. Scenes were staged simply, yet with good composition and a surprising use of a few, well-chosen scenic elements. This Cymbeline is staged in a plain, white-walled room with nothing more than a couple of wooden cubes and a large, versatile trunk which was designed and built by Jacques Roy. Yet, the trunk becomes a kind of magic box of tricks, transforming seamlessly into a ship, a throne, a cave, a pool table, and a bed, among other things.

Whitney Locher's tasteful, two-toned costumes in brown and cream give the company the unified look of a chorus while simultaneously proving flexible enough to indicate different characters through minor adjustments. Imogen and the Queen's costumes are particularly successful; the former, a flattering-floor-length number with a split over-skirt, transforms into Imogen's boy disguise, while the latter, a saucy short dress on the wicked Queen, becomes a large-pocketed country frock merely with the removal of a belt. Sound, sometimes in the form of foley-style effects, is performed by offstage actors on a plethora of musical instruments, including a horn, guitar, banjo, recorder, a wind-chime and a set of pool balls.

In fact, there are very few flaws to be found in this Cymbeline. Perhaps at the beginning, the actors speak a little faster than was comfortable for the audience, and actress Emily Young's voice is drowned out by the musical accompaniment when she sings solo in the second act, but these minutia do not detract from the quality of the whole production.

The true reason for this production's excellence, however, is the work of the cast. It is clear that all six cast members – graduates of the Brown/Trinity Rep. Consortium – have benefited from their training. They clearly understand how to perform Shakespeare, making the complicated text into living thought for their characters. Jessie Austrian is radiant as the spirited, star-crossed Imogen, while Steinfeld is creepily charismatic as Iachimo, milking his scene in Imogen's bedroom for every laugh. Brody as Posthumus tears through an excruciatingly misogynistic monologue, but his obvious pain from Imogen's apparent betrayal makes this uncomfortable scene riveting. Although Andy Grotelueschen rushes through his first scenes as Cymbeline and Cloten, he hits his stride as a cringing chemist who foils the Queen's machinations by passing off a sleeping potion as poison. The cast is rounded out by Paul L. Coffey as principled servant Pisanio and Young, whose languid Queen is a suitably wicked stepmother.

When a production has what Fiasco Theater's Cymbeline does – uniformly strong performers, an elegant concept, solid direction, and a diverting text – there is no need for technology. The work stands proudly on its own.

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Cruel to Be Kind

In plays such as Fat Pig and Reasons to be Pretty and similarly dyspeptic films like In the Company of Men, playwright Neil LaBute has spared no mercy in displaying just how cruel man can be, invading the dark corners of the mind people keep hidden from strangers and shining a bright light upon them. bash, one of LaBute’s earlier works of note (it debuted Off-Broadway a decade ago featuring a searing cast that included Ron Eldard and Calista Flockhart), is perhaps one of his most searing. Director Robert Knopf certainly holds nothing back in Chris Chaberski's and Eastcheap Rep’s current production, running at Tom Noonan’s Paradise Factory.

The show is essentially a triptych of three extended monologues. Though the order has changed in various productions, the first of the three scenes I saw was “Medea Redux.” It features a lone woman, matter-of-factly addressing the audience about a sexual relationship she had with her teacher when she was thirteen years old. The unnamed woman ultimately becomes pregnant from this relationship, but keeps the child and defends this teacher, even though the two eventually become estranged.

Chelsea Lagos plays the woman in a performance that’s part endurance test and part act of deception: her character tells us a lot, and does so in very carefully measured amounts, but what is most important is what she doesn’t tell us. LaBute’s most important character attributes lie in what remains unsaid. It isn’t that his narrators in bash are unreliable, but that what we see is not totally what we get. The playwright wants us to dig in between the lines and come up with our own conclusions, forcing us to turn a mirror on our own dark impulses.

Take, for example, the next monologue, “Iphigenia in Orem,” starring Luke Rosen as Young Man. Rosen, in a wonderfully polished performance, recounts to an unseen party (and really to us) how a practical joke between himself and a work colleague escalated severely. As with Lagos’ Young Woman, circumstances eventually escalate to the point where the Young Man makes a shocking decision. This is shocking not just because of the weight of the decision, but also jarring because his assured delivery doesn’t fit that weight appropriately.

More than most of LaBute’s plays, including his later Wrecks, bash reflects the playwright’s dexterous ear for language and imagery. He knows how to make these long scenes more palatable for his less auditory audience members. Throughout the play, he subverts the major events of each monologue. His characters gloss over heavy subjects effortlessly – sometimes Lagos and Rosen display sweetness or fondness when describing difficult certain choices they have made – and speak in a lilting, lyrical way.

Knopf also demonstrates real style for each monologue. Each scene feels perfectly paced, and make the seemingly impossible possible: he finds a way into each character that not only hooks us in, but makes us care regardless of the information we get from them. We feel the pain, shame, foolishness and regret that these characters have experienced at some point in the stories they share.

And it really does feel like sharing. Throughout the performance, we feel as though we are right there witnessing the acts discussed in the play, rather than simply hearing accounts of past incidents. Nowhere is this more paramount than the second act monologue, “A Gaggle of Saints,” in which Lagos and Rosen play Sue and John, a New England couple who recount a disturbing trip to New York in ways that contradict each other while filling in missing blanks.

Lagos and Rosen are perfectly cast in each of their two roles. They both feel completely honest and lend an enormous amount of credibility to their respective pieces of the show. Additionally, Jessica Fialko’s design deserves mention, particularly the lighting, which becomes a character of its own during the performance.

Perhaps the most alarming about bash may be the same thing that makes it the most successful. Knopf’s production shows that, while cruelty can take many different forms and occur in a variety of different situations, it is something that lives in all of us.

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Revenge of the Jews

This seems to be the year for Jewish partisans in World War II. First there was Defiance, Edward Zwick’s fascinating film about Jewish refugees holding on to their lives and humanity in the forests of Byelorussia (now Belarus)and trying to avoid the Nazis. Then there was Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a revenge fantasy in which Jewish partisans club Nazis to death and incinerate Hitler and his high command. Now, inspired by the actual, mysterious poisoning of some 1,900 German prisoners in 1946, Daniel Goldfarb offers his own, darker revenge fantasy. Unfortunately, his misbegotten potboiler leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth. Goldfarb imagines the perpetrators of the mass poisoning to be Polish partisans who lived in the forest during World War II and who now wish to send a message: “The world can’t continue to murder Jews without consequences.” The mastermind of the plot is the tall, lanky Dov Kaplinsky (Adam Driver), a driven vengeance-seeker. His principal accomplices are two women: Anika Stoller (Margareta Levieva) and Dinchka Fried (Cristin Milioti).

Dov’s initial plan is to poison the water in Germany and kill millions of civilians en masse. “The People are the ones who ratted us out of hiding, who named names, who pushed us on the trains, ran the camps, and shoveled our fresh emaciated bald corpses into the crematoriums,” he rants to Dinchka on a train en route to Germany. “It wasn’t Hitler, I’ll tell you that.” (If that sounds dangerously like absolution for the Führer, it’s typical of the muddled notions of the play, which revels in plots and counterplots.)

When Dov is detained by authorities, Anika must put Plan B into action. She has enlisted a yearning, Aryan-looking ex-lover, Jascha (a fine Adam Rothenberg), to agree to get a job in a bakery near the prison camp in Nuremberg and to poison the bread baked for the prisoners. Jascha still carries a torch for Anika, but she wraps him around her little finger—although how she does it with lines like “It’s fascinating that you’re as stupid as you are” may leave one puzzled.

The moral issues of whether the entire German nation is to blame for the Holocaust or whether prisoners of war should be summarily executed are serious ones, but Goldfarb sprinkles them confusingly throughout his melodrama, which features a love triangle, lesbianism and sexual betrayal. “We need to be Maccabees now,” says Dov, referring to the warriors of Biblical times who fought back against oppressors—and echoing a line in Defiance. (Although New Testament beliefs are irrelevant to his Jewish characters, who claim to be atheists anyway, Goldfarb tosses off a gratuitous insult to Christians in the first five minutes.) But the characters so earnestly accept the notion of blood for blood that by the time Dinchka realizes that Dov and Anika’s ideas are warped, one has little sympathy even for her, and the point barely registers.

Leigh Silverman’s production provides a couple moments of suspense. One is a flashback to the war and the forest, nicely lighted by Peter Kaczorowski with a chilly dark blue, and provided with nerve-wracking sounds of tires on gravel and train whistles by Jill BC DuBoff; the other, when Jascha is in the bakery, looking for an opportunity to poison the bread.

In the crucial role of Anika, Levieva exhibits a transparent coyness and a petulance that undermine the ruthless cunning of her character and offset any sense of sexual electricity—she has three people on a string. The character comes off not as intriguing but blatantly repellent, as does Dov.

Neither the playwright nor Silverman has noticed some jarringly modern idioms in the writing: “I’ve moved on,” “I can’t get you out of my system,” “You can’t beat yourself up about that,” and the commonly heard four-letter words that educated people of the era would have considered unthinkable to utter. Goldfarb may have caught a 2009 zeitgeist of Jewish revenge fantasy, but what he’s come up with is a dispiriting hash.

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Unrealized Potential

Comedy. Farce. Drama. Romance. Although audience members having a night on the town may not consciously classify the genre of a play they're watching, they are nevertheless gathering clues in order to understand its world. John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves, for example, is a black comedy, mining uncomfortable topics for their humor without undermining their gravity. Unfortunately, The Gallery Players' current revival of Guare's 1966 play is so muddled that it has lost both its incisiveness and its sense of humor. The hero of The House of Blue Leaves is one Artie Shaughnessy, a middle-aged zoo-keeper from Queens who dreams of fame as a Hollywood songwriter but sees his chance for a breakthrough diminishing day by day. He's supported in his ambition through his lover, Bunny, who uses her only talent – gourmet cooking – to attach herself to the man she sees as her ticket to Hollywood. Artie's path to fame and fortune is hampered, however, by the need to care for his mentally ill wife, Bananas, whom he plans to commit to the sanitarium of the play's title.

Although an Act Two influx of zany characters – including a bomb-building alter-boy, a deaf starlet, and a trio of nuns – pushes the play towards farce, there is an edge of violence and despair which belies the work's lighter aspects. In the end, Artie recognizes the hopelessness of his situation, and with an agonized cry -- “I'm too old to be a young talent!” -- strikes out at the person he imagines is holding him back. He never understands what the audience grasps: the true obstacle to Artie gaining fame and fortune is his own lack of talent, evidenced by the old-fashioned, lackluster tunes he peddles. This is the bitter pill which firmly establishes The House of Blue Leaves as a true black comedy.

Director Dev Bondarin has failed to find the right tone for her production, mining neither the play's farcical elements nor its darker moments for their humor. Not even Artie's account of his first encounter with Bunny in a steam room, when her prattle about cooking aroused him so much that he immediately ripped off his towel and took her by force, leading to her deadpan observation that “there's a man in here...”, managed to raise a titter.

The lead actors -- Burke Adams (Artie), Stacey Scotte (Bunny), and Victoria Budonis (Bananas) – are all able performers, with Budonis in particular showing a good stage presence and a fine voice, but all three seem disconnected from one another and from the text. The actors in the smaller roles fare better. Alex Herrald's manic Ronnie Shaughnessy, Artie's AWOL son who tries to achieve notoriety by blowing up the Pope, injects some much needed energy into the end of Act One and the beginning of Act Two. Emilie Soffe is charming as a diminutive novice nun who reconsiders her holy calling, while Tom Cleary as Hollywood director Billy Einhorn offers Artie a tantalizing taste of life beyond Sunnyside, Queens.

Although the storytelling aspects of The House of Blue Leaves are wanting, Bondarin's production is handsomely designed. Ann Bartek's cozy box set, with its yellow and red floral wallpaper and cramped Pullman kitchen, suitably evokes New York in the 1960s, while the heavy iron bars on the window hint at the apartment's darker function as Bananas and Artie Shaughnessy's current prison. The only false notes in Bartek's design are the photographs which pepper the walls: the black and white 8 x 10s are so uniform that they appear to have been recently printed on photo paper.

Brad L. Scoggin's costumes suitably express each character's unique situation, from Bananas' grubby robe and nightgown, to Ronnie's outgrown alter-boy outfit, to Billy Einhorn's sophisticated turtleneck-and-tweed ensemble. The sound design by Chris Rummel is solid, with convincing street noise and an excellent facsimile of an explosion. Lighting designer Ryan Bauer creates attractive and occasionally poignant effects, particularly in the final moments of the play, when he gives Artie the spotlight he begged for in the prologue, and it turns out to be a pattern of blue leaves, as if Artie is trapped in the very sanitarium he had intended for his wife. That moment is truly a thing of beauty.

Nevertheless, strong design is not enough to overcome the shortcomings of this House of Blue Leaves. Without a clear sense of its genre and strong connections between the performers, the production flounders, leaving its message about the dangerous pull of celebrity and the soul-killing ache of mediocrity unstated and its humor ultimately unrealized.

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Gays, Grandma, Giant Chicken

MilkMilkLemonade, a smart new comedy from The Management, tells the story of Emory (Andy Phelan), an 11-year-old boy growing up on a poultry farm with his chain-smoking grandmother (Michael Cyril Creighton). She wishes he would stop playing with dolls and learn to throw like a boy; he wishes she would turn the farm into a vegan co-op. Written by Joshua Conkel, The Management's Artistic Director, MilkMilkLemonade is structured like a children's play, complete with a narrator (Lady in a Leotard, played with anxious delight by Nikole Beckwith). "I will attempt to remain as neutral as possible," she tells the audience at the outset of the play, helpfully adding "neutral means boring." Other elements of the play that are evocative of children's theater include the cheery primary colors of Jason Simm's cardboard set, a giant chicken named Linda (Jennifer Harder, whose emotive clucks are translated into English by Lady in a Leotard), and a couple of enthusiastic dance segments.

In the hands of director Isaac Butler, the play's structural childlike qualities permeate every aspect of the production, to terrific results. MilkMilkLemonade is a gay coming of age story that tackles queerness from the perspective of an effeminate 11-year-old. Under Butler's direction, "childlike" never includes a knowing wink and nod from the grown-up artists. Neither does it devolve into cutesy preciousness. Instead, we are given a comedy infused with all the quiet seriousness and whimsy of preadolescence.

"If people didn't play the roles that god gave 'em," Nana asks Emory early in the play, "what would happen?" Yet for a dialogue that begins with a gloss of Leviticus, their exchange is marked more by familial pouting than by religious solemnity. MilkMilkLemonade is noteworthy for its depiction of a young generation of rural queers. Without making light of the challenges Emory will face as he grows up, it suggests those hardships are difficult and complicated, but ultimately surmountable. There is no utopic solution or angry cultural critique.

Anger is largely absent from the play. Linda the chicken is often sad but struggles to accept her chicken farm fate. Although Nana wishes her grandson would butch up, her love for him is as obvious as it is tough. Emory negotiates his desires and social expectations with a hilarious, heartbreaking earnestness. Only Elliot (Jess Barbagallo), a boy who lives down the street and has a penchant for playing with fire, struggles with anger, and he does so directly, imagining, in one of the play's more inventive devices, an evil parasitic twin who compels him to act on his furious impulses and who lives inside his thigh.

As the play unfolds, Emory and Elliot's relationship becomes more complicated than first meets Nana's eye. Their youthful exploration of homoeroticism is, by turns, terrifyingly destructive and adorably sweet. When they play a game of house that's Tennessee Williams by way of Molly Ringwald, MilkMilkLemonade is at its meta-theatrical best. The boys' game of make-believe trades in gendered cultural imaginaries that expose how normative gender has long served as fantasy. Fantasy: both an illusion and a sexy indulgence.

Make no mistake: MilkMilkLemonade, which takes its title from a dirty children's rhyme, explores its overarching themes (sex, bodies, fate) through playful action, not heady analysis or sentimental preaching. That renders its critique especially effective. This is a play with card-board chickens taped to the walls (a fabulous touch).

If it's worth noting that the play includes cross-gendered casting, it's only to emphasize that this is not drag. Each of the characters is played with unwavering integrity by the talented cast. Phelan and Barbagallo deserve special credit for meeting the challenge of portraying young boys without condescending to their roles. Emory and Elliot are smart and funny, neither too immature nor overly sophisticated. Phelan and Barbagallo do 11-year-olds everywhere proud.

It's tough to be an effeminate boy in farm town. When life gives you lemons, campy romps and breakout dance segments are still a lot of fun.

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Martial Plans

The plot summary for Bekah Brunstetter’s ambitious new play suggests that Oohrah! could be a timely social document about the difficulties of adjusting to home life for U.S. troops who have spent long stretches of time in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the author, trying to tell several stories at once that are centered at Fort Bragg (although it is not mentioned, the nearby city of Fayetteville, N.C., is), ends up with a disjointed domestic drama. Sara (Jennifer Mudge) is an Army wife with a teenage daughter; her husband, Ron, is a captain who has just returned from Iraq service (played by Darren Goldstein as a laconic pillar of strength). The loving but apprehensive Sara wants Ron to settle down, and he does want to, but she pushes so hard for him to find work that he’s not interested in, or is unsuited to, that she sabotages their hopes.

Ironically, Sara’s sister, Abby, living in the house to keep Sara company, is also doing some emotional demolition work. A flight attendant, Abby is engaged to a civilian, Chris (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), who has a job in security at the local airport. Surrounded by a warrior class, the laid-back Chris believes his uniform carries the same weight as those of combat troops, but he’s deluded. (Near-Verbrugghe excels at playing this sympathetic patsy, who has a warm and constant heart.) Though Abby continually tells Chris she loves him, she doesn’t, at least not with the physical passion a spouse must have. It seems her real attraction is to testosterone-fueled men wearing uniforms. Set designer Lee Savage nicely delineates the sisters’ differences with a two-level set. Sara’s crisis involves the hearth, or the seat of home life, represented by a modern, blond-wood kitchen; Abby’s yearnings involve the bedroom on the upper level.

On a flight into Fayetteville, Abby latches on to a Marine corporal, Chip (Maximilian Osinski), and maneuvers him into coming to dinner at Sara’s. “I love the Marine uniform,” she tells him. “So regal. So much better than the Army uniform. You look like something from a really good book.” Eventually she gets him to stay overnight, and seduces him, though he’s less willing than she’d prefer.

Director Evan Cabnet hasn’t been able to fuse all the elements, which include two other family members, to create a cohesive whole. Although there’s a linear symmetry to the plotting—combat hero Ron stands at one end, a man who knows himself and his needs, and the clueless civilian Chris at another, while Chip holds an agonizing middle position—Abby and Chris’s story is much stronger than the others.

The homebody Sara, played with a bottled desperation by Mudge, can't match the interest sparked by her lustful sister: Cassie Beck as the duplicitous Abby is as riveting as a snake. Even after Chris sees her making a pass at someone else, he believes her when she says she loves him. The twists of her plotline alone deserve an “Oohrah!” (a call that military men make to each other to honor their status). And, to her credit, Brunstetter has done homework that many playwrights fail to do; she understands the difference in dress and address of officers vs. NCOs.

As a piece of social observation, though, Oohrah! contains no revelations. It’s merely a snapshot of an awkward situation, not a problem for which the author offers a solution. And although the two sisters occupy the ostensibly more important stories, the climax comes when Ron and Chris bond awkwardly. The crux of the women's problems is the men's heartfelt need—whether it’s to serve their country or to fulfill their masculine identity is uncertain, but the urge strikes as deep as the bonds of matrimony.

“It’s not that I don’t love them,” Ron tells Chip. “I love them so much…. It’s just I got other things to give.” Such a sentiment may have no rational explanation, and perhaps that’s the reason why, despite the talent of the performers, the play leaves one unsatisfied.

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Dublin Sorrows

Sebastian Barry’s new play blends the Irish gift of poetry with the grimness of hardscrabble lives so familiar from the works of J.M. Synge and Sean O’Casey, not to mention more recent writers like Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh. The knack Barry showed for lyrical writing in The Steward of Christendom and Our Lady of Sligo are on full display here. Yet The Pride of Parnell Street isn’t a work in which characters interact. It’s two intertwined monologues made exciting by superb performers and Barry’s own gift for poetry. Barry’s play follows the romance, marriage and separation of a working-class Dublin couple, Janet and Joe Brady. There’s a sense of warm reverie in both monologues, delivered in 1999 about happenings in 1990 and later, that contrasts with the subjects: robbery, brutality, drunkenness, murder and drug addiction. Nonetheless, Mary Murray’s smile and gleaming eyes when Janet speaks about the good days long past communicate the joy of their early marriage.

Joe was a Midday Man, explains Janet—a man who woke at midday and walked down the streets checking car doors and stealing from open ones or breaking into them if they weren’t open. Then he’d sell the swag to the Afternoon Man. He never held a job and survived on theft and government handouts. “I may have been a bad bastard but I was very fond of life,” says Joe, telling his side of the story from a hospital bed.

The first shock to their marriage is the accidental death of their firstborn. But the coup de grâce comes in the midst of the 1990 soccer season in which Ireland has a shot at the World Cup. Janet remembers the night of the first win: “he was happy, high happy, like a crazy happy, a big blank happy look on his musher like he was on some bad drug, but he never done that. And that was very queer,” she continues, “and me and the little lads kinda slunk off in a corner and let him—blow up like a balloon—roaring and happy as a king—kinda bursting he was—then in the morning, like a balloon left sitting for a week he was, the sag in his face and the low throttle in his poor voice.” And then the team loses. Quickly and suddenly Joe turns violent and beats her mercilessly. She grabs the children, flees to a women’s shelter, and never returns.

In their monologues, inventively lighted by Mark Galione in warm amber that suggests the harsh memories are mellowing, they fill in the details of a love ruined by that one violent act. Joe, dying in a hospital bed, is quickly revealed by his own words as a liar, but he bears no grudge at Janet’s refusal to answer his letters. He has never seen his two children since, and he’s followed a downward spiral into drug addiction and murder.

Under Jim Culleton’s subtle direction the moods move fluidly from sweet nostalgic to sour disappointment, abetted by Galione’s shoestring effects of shadow and silhouette. Aidan Kelly manages to find remorse, humor and love in Joe. Still, Barry glosses Joe with perhaps too much sympathy: he has always been a thief and layabout; worse, he has robbed and murdered a young Frenchman and served prison time for it, though he’s out after five years for good behavior. It’s really Janet’s feeling about him that one trusts more, but it requires acceptance of the old romantic notion of a bad man redeemed by the love of a good woman. “I knew that in the centre of everything he was brave, like a soldier at the war,” says Janet. “And that it was only life that done him in and made a fool a him, like it does us all.”

But Janet is haunted by another memory. As a child she witnessed the aftermath of an IRA bombing, and saw a woman named Patty Duffy tending to the wounded, despite herself being bloodied. She remembers Duffy as “the Pride of Parnell Street.” Ironically, Joe refers to Janet the same way. The irony is that Janet has never been able to summon the compassion for Joe that her idol, Patty Duffy, had for injured strangers—until a deathbed reconciliation. It’s both the pleasure Joe has in hearing about his children and their future as he’s dying and Janet’s ability to talk to him face-to-face that makes the ending unforgettable.

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Something Happened on the Way Home to Ithaca

Can the Odyssey, that 12,000 line epic poem, be successfully translated onto stage without being over long and overly arduous? Judging from Handcart Ensemble's production of Simon Armitage's adaptation, the answer is yes. Homer's Odyssey trims and alters certain bits of the story. What unfolds onstage is then an old, familiar story that nonetheless remains fresh, exciting, and thoroughly engaging. After winning the Trojan War, Odysseus and his men set off to return home to Ithaca. However, they soon find themselves lost at sea and float from strange land to strange land. They run into trouble on the Island of the Cyclops, where they are trapped in the cave of Polyphemus the Cyclops and are at risk of becoming his dinner. Odysseus tricks Polyphemus by getting him drunk, telling him that his name is “Nobody” and then blinding him so that Odysseus and his men can escape. Unfortunately for Odysseus, Polyphemus is Poseidon's son, and Odysseus and his men need to sail on the ocean in order to get home. Odysseus' men bring further strife upon themselves by later eating the sacred cattle of the sun god. Eventually, only Odysseus is left, and he winds up staying on an island with the goddess Calypso, who has fallen in love with him.

Meanwhile, on Ithaca, his wife, Penelope, and now grown son, Telemachus, must deal with the presence of greedy boorish suitors. Since Odysseus has not been formally buried, Penelope cannot agree to marry one of them. Because of guest/host rules in Ancient Greece, she cannot turn them out either. The suitors grow restless and plot to kill Telemachus, who has, on the advice of Athena-in-disguise, sailed to Sparta.

Armitage's adaptation uses beautiful, evocative language. The eye-gouging of Polyphemus occurs mostly off-stage, yet Odysseus' description of his plan is graphic enough to make one feel a little queasy. It is aurally gory and does not need the addition of spurting blood so common in shows today to get its point across.

However, the production is visually thrilling in other ways. Puppets are used quite effectively. Polyphemus is first shown as a giant shadow puppet. When he finally stomps onstage, he is a terrible sight to behold: a puppet on stilts with a large papier-mâché head. Additionally, the ensemble has a great sense of physicality. They bob and weave in fight scenes, embody the waves while out at sea, and tumble over each other.

The acting is, for the most part, spot on. David D'Agonstini brings just the right level of command and strength to the character of Odysseus while Rachael McOwen is bright-eyed as Nausicaä. However, there is doubling and tripling of roles in the show, and some actors felt stiff and flat in some of their roles, as if they were unaccustomed to their characters still.

Homer's Odyssey, with a runtime of over two and a half hours, is not a brief show. However, every minute of it is a joy to watch. The language is fresh and engaging, and the theatrics make the show a treat for the eyes. Homer's Odyssey breathes fresh life into an old tale.

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Good Grief

With his latest play, The Bereaved, Thomas Bradshaw has found a natural outlet in farce. Mr. Bradshaw has stripped his set down to the basics, eschewed gimmicks (last year’s Dawn inexplicably featured an LED screen announcing the location of its scenes), and delivered an often uproarious, if mostly shallow, work. The Bereaved’s message, if indeed there is one, seems to be that some American families, despite their appearances, are really, really effed up. We’ve known that for decades—but, with Bradshaw, the effedupness is off the charts. In The Bereaved, rather than attempting to shock us with depravity, he’s simply entertaining us. What we get is South Park on stage. Don’t expect earth-shattering messages and you won’t be disappointed.

The Bereaved’s action really gets going after Carol (McKenna Kerrigan), an attorney, and her adjunct professor husband, Michael (Andrew Garman) celebrate one of Carol’s court victories with some Johnnie Walker Black Label and a few lines of cocaine. She suddenly suffers a heart attack. A stunned Michael calls 911, but not before making sure to hide the drugs and booze. Soon, every component of an already precarious family unit comes unglued.

Those who come for the depravity won’t leave frustrated. It’s not enough that 15-year old kids (Vincent Madero as Michael and Carol’s prep-school son, Teddy, and Jenny Seastone Stern as his pregnant girlfriend, Melissa) snort coke like there’s no tomorrow. Bradshaw has them sell it… at school… for their cash-strapped dad…who’s having kinky sex with Carol’s best friend…while Carol languishes in the hospital, now dying from complications of triple bypass surgery.

Don’t worry. I haven’t given even half of the somewhat meandering plot away. These bereaved do everything but grieve. Teddy makes little secret of the fact that the hospital bores him and whips out his Gameboy when he visits his mom in the intensive care unit. The Brady Bunch this group isn’t (is it merely ironic coincidence that the parents here are named Michael and Carol?), yet they’re oddly endearing, nearly likeable. Lee Savage’s set design is cute and homey and makes a neat contrast to the absurd degeneracy that takes place within its confines.

Thanks to director May Adrales, every actor here nails the necessary deadpan delivery and nonchalant change-ups that keep the laughs coming. Mr. Garman in particular has real comedic chops and range. He’s a one-man whirlwind of neuroses. He and Katy (KK Moggie), in the awkward throes of one of her rape fantasies, provide us with one of the more sidesplitting scenes in recent memory. And Brian D. Coates is droll and convincing as the Harlem drug dealer, Jamal, from whom the kids buy cocaine to replace the stash they’ve stolen from Michael.

It’s difficult to shock people these days. Even cable television shows like Weeds and mainstream movies like American Pie have covered some of Bradshaw’s territory here. Mr. Bradshaw is fond of calling his work “hyper-realism” but, at least here, it’s really just farce without the chase scenes. He was wise to embrace the preposterous humor of the improbable themes he piles atop of each other.

The Bereaved's ending is a bit lazy—it’s almost as if Bradshaw simply decides to stop it at the 70-minute mark. Yet, it’s probably as good a place as any. The wantonness could go on forever. Yet, it’s that absurdity—sad, for sure—at its core, that fuels this play and makes one laugh frequently.

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Power Play

Though the powerful can be perverse, those who try to curry favor with the powerful are often even more so. Jean-Paul Sartre considered Jean Genet's Deathwatch to be reiteration of themes explored in the playwright's more famous effort, The Maids. Locked away in a cramped prison cell, two petty criminals vie for the approval of their idol, an illiterate murder by the name of Green Eyes. Genet's poetic thieves and killers conflate power, violence, and masculinity in their battle for dominance, but when one of them finally strikes out to establish his position, he discovers that glory is not so easily obtained. Aaron Sparks' production, currently running in the Fringe Festival, is billed as the US premiere of David Rudkin's translation of the play. Unfortunately, the lackluster production makes it impossible to judge the quality of Rudkin's rendering. Taking his cue from all-male productions of The Maids, Sparks has cast women in Deathwatch. Though interesting in principle, this concept falters because Sparks' company fails to embody the destructive machismo and barely-concealed homoeroticism which are central to Genet's drama.

Sparks' company also seems hesitant to dive into Genet's dingy underworld. Only Carissa Cordes as Green Eyes projects the hardened, guarded aspect of a prisoner. Meanwhile, the whole cast speaks with a drama-school crispness and uniformity which is inconsistent with the world of the play. Rather than tracing the delicate shifts in alliance which are central to characters' journeys, the cast plows through Genet's poetic text, making the production particularly difficult to follow. Consequently, the ninety-minute show crawls, offering neither entertainment or surprise to the audience; this one is worth passing by.

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