The Rednecking of the Shrew

It’s just like Shakespeare wrote it...with the addition of beer, trucker hats, and country music. This is DMTheatrics’ American Shakespeare Factory and Horse Trade Theater Group’s version of The Taming of the Shrew , and tame it certainly isn’t. This production, currently playing at The Red Room, is actually quite brilliant in concept: a modernized Shrew with a redneck twist. The text sounds oddly perfect in a southern drawl, and with the exception of a few mis-directions, I think that the overall production is strong enough to attract those in search of a new take on an old classic. The entire theater-going experience of this Shrew is decidedly opposed to most people’s conception of Shakespeare. Forget the high brow, folks, this show is about hitting below the belt. I will avoid spoiling the surprise of entering the theater, but suffice it to say that the tone and place are already established by the time we come upon a character watching a Nascar race projected on a screen. The southern accents at first seemed odd, but I quickly realized that they suit the meter quite well. Southern accents are arguably the most musical of our country, and therefore they adeptly support the greater range inflection best suited for Shakespeare.

The actors make good sense of the words, and their actions provide a gentle guide through the story. Occasionally I could not make sense of the words when the musical underscoring, sometimes country, sometimes vintage love themes, was too loud. Indeed, sometimes I found the actors themselves were too loud, flattening out the vocal inflection and muddling together, but this did not happen too often.

The acting is generally strong. Brianna Tyson’s Katharina is wonderfully dynamic as she nails the biting comebacks Shakespeare grants the character while balancing the character’s gentler moments. Likewise, Swiderski’s Petruchio is devilishly charismatic while also dumbly brilliant. Another standout is Kymberly Tuttle’s Tranio, whose comic timing is as wonderful as the gigantic overcoat she uses to disguise herself to Baptista. There is also something very lovable about Joshua Schwartz’s Hortensio, one of the suitors seeking the love of Bianca, also well played by Lindsey Carter.

The only acting I took issue with is that of Edgar Eguia, whose characters seem to be out of place. He is playing for laughs, which he was surely directed to do, but it just doesn’t jibe with the rest of the production. I was taken out of the action as he hammed it up, and I long to see him embrace the almost self-conscious ease of his peers. He is best when matched up with Tuttle when her Tranio attempts to communicate with his Mr. Pedant.

Now would probably be a good time for me to acknowledge that I was curious to see how the final scene would be handled. The speech in which Katharina says “I am ashamed that women are so simple” is one that has plagued feminist scholars for years. Is Shakespeare sexist? Is Katharina tamed? Or is it all an inside joke between Katharina and Petruchio? I’ve seen it played both ways with great success.

This production is particularly good at emphasizing Katharina’s spunk, and her verbal jousting matches with Petruchio are sharp and witty. Yet this final scene is played devoid of irony, and with a sincerity that led me to believe that Katharina had indeed been tamed. In scenes before this it is obvious that she has been wooed, but to go from such fire to such complacency surprised me because I did not see an arc. When we realize that Katharina loves Petruchio, we are also meant to enjoy the power they both have. To play this scene in all honesty does not make sense in this context, for Katharina is not her husband’s servant. She has just redirected her fiery spirit to be more amenable to his comfort, as this production shows. This is the only scene that seems like a misstep.

The design concept of this production is very interesting. If you are going to see this show, be prepared to sit on low bleachers! Again, without ruining the surprise, the audience does not begin on these bleachers, but then moves into the space. Frank Cwiklik, director and designer, has utilized The Red Room theater space to create a versatile set. The most impressive thing about the staging is the ways in which the production chooses to move in and out of the proscenium. The length of the stage allows the actors to be upstage and become perfectly enclosed in a picture-frame proscenium, while being downstage breaks this construct, moving the action into a less constricted space much closer to the audience. This movement brilliantly mirrors greater aspects of the show itself, which breaks out of Shakespeare’s words through repetition and minor additions while then returning from whence it came. This continual referencing of the framing devices, both literal and physical, lends the show its postmodern flair.

After seeing tonight’s production, I’m left slightly curious about the unevenness between the first and second acts. The first act is high energy and never lags, while the second act seems longer and more drawn out. I have a feeling that this energy might have been particular to the performance I attended, and I reference it here to say that I believe that an act two like their act one would be quite a sight to see. So put down your chicken wings (they might give you some at the show) if you want to see a theater group taking risks and doing truly interesting work, and head on over to The Taming of the Shrew .

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Love and Deception

The Illusion is the final play in the Signature Theatre Company’s season of works by Tony Kushner, although it’s an adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s L’Illusion comique. Kushner has taken liberties with Corneille’s original, putting in new scenes and contributing his own vibrant language, darkening the tone of the neoclassical original, but there’s still much by Corneille that shines through strongly. The Illusion concerns Pridamant (David Margulies), a lawyer who drove his son Clindor away years before and now regrets his actions. To locate the boy, he calls at the cavernous lair of a sorceress, Alcandre (Lois Smith, taking on a role that was a male in the original). The brusque and initially unsympathetic mistress of dark arts shows Pridamant three visions of his son’s life. The scenes show his love affairs with different women, their jealous suitors, and a saucy maid, played adeptly by Merrit Wever in all three. In all three the characters have different names.

In the first, for instance, Clindor appears as a ragged peasant calling himself Calisto, declaring his love for the beautiful Melibea, who scorns him, but not wholeheartedly. Her maid cleverly elicits her mistress’s true feelings and arranges for the would-be lovers to meet. Calisto’s rival is a suitor named Pleribo.

Though The Illusion is a comedy about love, it comes with a heavy dose of cynicism, yet it all seems of a piece under Michael Mayer’s skillful direction. It’s not entirely love that leads Pridamant to seek Clindor: “I want to make him sick with guilt,” he says. Wittrock’s passionate hero describes his love for her mistress to the maid: “Inside I bleed.” His beloved reacts with shock to discover that he has no money after she has been disinherited for choosing him: “Both poor!” “Love is the illusion,” pronounces Alcandre, suggesting that the feelings of happiness it engenders are not real.

As the visions continue, a confused Pridamant complains, “Why has everyone changed their name? .... A man has a right to expect coherence.” It’s a bit of a meta-theatrical moment, with Kushner commenting on the French neoclassical rules of unity of time and place that Corneille managed to undermine in this clever work. By showing “visions” in a framing device that conformed to the rules—the French academy in the 17th century was brutal about breaking them—Corneille got around them. More important, Kushner’s intellectual playfulness opens the play up to modern audiences who don’t care about its historical significance; Kushner hints at it in Alcandre’s description of the visions as “a love and death spectacle worthy of Racine,” an icon of playwriting for the French academy.

The actors embrace the rich characters with verve. Wittrock moves gradually from peasant to military man (the final twist explains the nature of the visions), while remaining likable and noble whether he’s in rags or a uniform (by Susan Hilferty). Sean Dugan plays all three suitors with differing levels of arrogance and wrath. Wever’s maids move from helpful to mercenary, and she handles soliloquies of rhyming couplets with aplomb. Outside the visions, David Margulies’ Pridamant adds dryly comic touches as well.

Most delightful is Peter Bartlett as Matamore, a braggart soldier. The stereotype goes back at least to Plautus, but this Matamore is a fop, embodied by Bartlett with his trademark epicene flourish and comic timing. “I am so great at times I want to flee myself!” he declares. While describing a battle in which “the blood ran ankle-deep,” he wobbles and almost faints.

The darkness and mystery of the cave and the visions are enhanced by Kevin Adams’ inventively sparse lighting, while Bray Poor’s eerie sound design contributes dripping water and birds screeching.

Though at times Kushner wears his knowledge on his sleeve (there’s a line referencing the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, and occasionally the author’s love of language verges on turgid), most often he enhances the original, adding, for instance, a duel. (The French neoclassicists banned all violence from the stage.) He also provides an ending that gives Bartlett the opportunity to play emotions rarely associated with him, and the actor rises to the occasion. In a wistful, melancholy moment, Matamore compares himself to Hannibal and prepares to leave this world for a better one (indicated by a masterly projection). It’s a fitting, fanciful coda to a play that should be better known.

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Broken Apollo

The one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Tennessee Williams has brought a resurgence of his plays back to the New York stage, particularly his lesser-known works. Roundabout Theatre’s The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore starring Olympia Dukakis, The Wooster Group’s Vieux Carré, Mother of Invention’s, Austin Pendleton-directed Small Craft Warnings, and the Hudson Hotel site-specific staging of Green Eyes are but a few of the Williams’ revivals to hit the boards of the Big Apple in 2011.

Add to that list The New Group and Tectonic Theater Project co-production of Tennessee Williams’ One Arm, now playing a limited engagement at The Acorn on Theatre Row.

One Arm is based on a 1948 short story that was turned into an unproduced screenplay in 1967. As adapted for the stage utilizing both sources and directed by Moisés Kaufman (The Laramie Project, 33 Variations, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo), One Arm is a fascinating curiosity featuring a star-making performance by Claybourne Elder in the lead.

Set in 1967 mostly in Williams’ beloved French Quarter of New Orleans with quick stops in New York, Los Angeles, and other U.S cities, the story centers on Ollie Olsen, a champion boxer from the armed forces described as “lighting in leather” who loses his right arm in a car accident.

After losing the appendage, Ollie also loses his ability to feel emotional connections, becoming bitter and detached. Forced into hustling to survive, the hunky Elder commands the stage as the broken Apollo, possessing a boyish beauty and naivety that belies his smoldering sensuality.

Through a narrator and a series of flashbacks (both well-worn Williams motifs), the audience learns about Ollie pre- and post-tragedy. They also learn of the circumstances that landed him in prison, awaiting the death penalty for the murder of a porn director who pushed the damaged protagonist to violence.

All of the other actors in One Arm play multiple parts, from johns to pimps, prostitutes to porn stars. Larisa Polonsky, in particular, is outstanding in the female roles, jumping from saintly to sultry and back again most convincingly.

The industrial set by Derek McLane, luscious lighting by David Lander, and evocative sound design by Shane Rettig create a decidedly decadent environment for the play’s action, perfectly capturing the barren isolation of a prison cell, the dark shadows of a park late at night, and a hair-raising car ride that ends in catastrophe.

Fluid direction by Kaufman keeps the 90-minute show at a brisk pace, although there are a few moments that seem to drag on, making the short show seem longer than it actually is. And the elegant production, although gorgeous and engaging, unfortunately only accentuates the story’s flaws and faults, especially the role of the narrator.

But Tennessee Williams aficionados and fans of provocative theater alike will find much to savor in this ingenious and exquisite production of One Arm. And be sure to keep an eye on Mr. Claybourne Elder. He’s a talented young performer with a bright future — a true triple threat who made his New York debut at the Public Theater in Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show. He’s definitely a star in the making.

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Set Sail on an Historical Voyage

What might happen when a fledgling nation encounters a great foreign empire for the first time? Will these disparate cultures be able to find common ground despite a severe language barrier? Are there goods and services that each country can trade with the other to initiate continued economic connections? Such are the questions at stake in the Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America’s production of The Empress of China. This play, written and directed by Joanna Chan, tackles an important historical moment, attempting to display what it was like when China and the United States of America first began trading, but peppering the retelling of that event with some intriguing fictionalized fare. This play is well worth watching, both for its entertainment value and the history lesson that it provides. The play centers on the first trade voyage to set sail from the US to China. The piece jumps back and forth in time, taking us from the Americans landing in WhamPao Reach back to their early negotiations with their financial sponsors in the new United States. From the American side, scandal abounds: their first trade idea is to sell northwestern furs at an exorbitant cost and a substantial sum of money is “borrowed” from the coffers by one of the men. Although these conflicts appear to be the source of the dramatic action in this play, the real drama unfolds after the intermission. One of the young American ambassadors to China finds himself attracted to Miss Purple Lotus, daughter of one of the men with whom the Americans wish to do business.

The romance between these two characters is the highlight of the play. As Purple Lotus, Annie Q. plays the innocent young woman with excitement and demureness. She carries herself perfectly in the role and is well-complimented by the performance of Andrei Drooz as her new love interest First Supercargo Samuel Shaw. Watching him struggle over his own sense of honor in the dirty dealings of business is compelling. The lovers' few shared scenes are accentuated with the recitation of Chinese poetry as well as a lesson in traditional American dance of the period. These sweet moments bring out the real magic possible in a first intercultural exchange.

This play contends with the shaky ground on which such global negotiation occurs. Indeed, the distances between cultures are highlighted. The play is performed partially in Mandarin Chinese and partly in English (for the audience, subtitles are projected). The characters are forced to contend with translators and ultimately with some key misunderstandings that threaten to tear their trade enterprises apart. Yet, the play also highlights how much is to be gained by the opening of national shores to new cultures. Purple Lotus seems enchanted by the American ideas that she is learning for the first time; Shaw is also intrigued by the Chinese ways and customs.

These cultural details are enhanced by a gorgeous array of period costumes on stage, created by Xu HaoJian and Edmond Wong. The music, by Yuan Cheuk-Wa, is also a sumptuous feast for the ears, punctuating the acts in a fulfilling way. However, the piece does have moments in which it drags, particularly those which focus solely on business negotiations and politics. There is a bit too much talking on stage, which, at times, slows the piece down. Without a strong background in the histories of both nations during the period, some sections are difficult to follow, making the long discussions seem a bit distancing.

Overall, however, The Empress of China is a real treat for New York audiences. It is a chance to encounter a significant historical event with which one may not have been familiar previously. It is also a chance to delight in eighteenth-century culture and view not only how different a time it was from our own, but also, and more importantly, to realize the ways in which our modern moment is not so different at all. This play is worth watching, no matter from which shore you originally hail.

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Art Brut

Co-produced by Playwrights Horizons and New York Theatre Workshop, The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World is a new musical based on a true story. Three sisters from Fremont, New Hampshire with no musical expertise were forced by their father to form a rock band and record their debut album in Massachusetts in 1969, which would later become a cult classic. Although there is much to recommend in this quirk-filled show, the sum unfortunately does not equal the individual parts. It’s a sad story about failed dreams and unfulfilled ambition — kind of a downer, to be honest. The Shaggs’ album, Philosophy of the World, faded into obscurity, only to be rediscovered and then rereleased on vinyl in 1980. The dozen songs are best described as “outsider music,” featuring earnest, unpolished, off-tempo, and atonal compositions with deeply accented vocals and simplistic yet existential lyrics.

Nonetheless, the strange innocence and youthful energy of The Shaggs earned them many fans, including Kurt Cobain. Frank Zappa called them “better than the Beatles.” A review of their CD on dubbed it “a Dada masterpiece.”

A lot of folks, however, would disagree with those assessments. “Many people in Fremont thought the band stank,” according to a 1999 profile in The New Yorker written by Orchid Thief author Susan Orlean. The Shaggs are definitely a love ’em or hate ’em kind of band. The Shaggs, the musical, however, offers decidedly more grey area.

Tony Award nominee Peter Friedman (Tateh in the original Ragtime) plays Austin Wiggin, the overbearing father who is a cross between Mama Rose from Gypsy and Joe Jackson — father of Michael, Janet, and the rest of the Jacksons. And make no mistake, Austin is the center of The Shaggs. It’s his mother’s prophecy that the girls will be in band that propels the misguided working-class dad to pull his offspring out of school to become The Shaggs.

But there is something off-putting about watching two-and-a-half hours of a father bullying his untalented daughters into making music when they display no passion or aptitude for it. His haranguing and berating borders on and sometimes crosses over into violence. It’s a harrowing performance by the magnetic Friedman, but it isn’t enjoyable or comfortable to watch.

Annie Golden (last seen in Xanadu and most famous as Jeannie in the film version of Hair) as the sympathetic mother and supportive wife adds a lighter touch. Her spectacular, helium-soaked voice takes flight in the gorgeous “Flyin’” — a highlight of the second act.

Regarding the three sisters, Jamey Hood gives dramatic heft to the role of Dot, lead guitarist/songwriter and the daughter with the fiercest loyalty to her father. Sarah Sokolovic adds both flirtiness and willfulness to vocalist/guitarist Betty.

Emily Watson (from Playwrights Horizons Saved) as the drumming sister Helen charmingly sings the first act showstopper “Impossible You,” but her character is mute (by choice) most of the play. Speechless characters can be problematic onstage, forced into physicality that can come off as clownish, childish, or both.

One problem of The Shaggs lies in making the father, not the girls, the main focus of the narrative. His drive and ambition are obsessively clear, while the trio of daughters seem interchangeably sullen and bored. None of the girls really shine through, although each is given at least one moment in the spotlight.

But the main flaw with The Shaggs is that the show is not true to life. In reality there were six Wiggins kids, many of whom had a hand in the live shows, including another sister, Rachel, who joined the band later and played bass. None of the other siblings exist in the musical-version world of The Shaggs.

The sisters were also all blonds, not brunettes like the wigged cast members. Even the ages of the girls are mixed up. Helen is portrayed as the youngest, when she was actually the oldest. And while the action onstage takes place while the girls are high-school aged, Helen was 22, Dot 21, and Betty 18 when their album was recorded.

Changes like these can be chalked up to artistic license, but they remain somewhat baffling considering the legendary status of The Shaggs story. Why base the musical on a true story if you’re not going to portray its reality?

Aside from these qualms, the most striking moments of the show occur during the recording of the album as we hear the songs performed onstage by the romanticized version of the trio and then also hear the actual output in comparison. The difference is startling. The times the actual Shaggs songs are reworked and turned into beautiful music — complete with sisterly harmonies — as opposed to the discordant originals are also deeply affecting.

A song in Act One called “Show Me the Magic” aptly describes my ambivalence about The Shaggs. A musical about musicians who couldn’t make music; a talented cast playing talentless people; a true story that is actually far from the truth. In the liner notes to Philosophy of the World, Austin Wiggin wrote “The Shaggs are real, pure, unaffected by outside influences.” Sadly, the same cannot be said of The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World.

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The Anne Diaries

What would you do if Anne Hathaway stepped out of your TV and began to talk to you? This is the innovative premise of Shawn C. Harris’s creative play Tulpa, or Anne & Me now playing at the Robert Moss Theater. The production has a lot to say with its conversations on the difficult topic of race, but dramaturgically the pacing undercuts the power of the dialogue and plot. It has a lot of potential, but the piece still comes across as a workshop production. Tulpa, or Anne & Me is part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, which consists of 35 productions that are categorized as both philanthropic and green. In this spirit, the space contains only a futon, some drawing materials, and the colorful outline of a TV set. We are introduced to [NAME], in this case “Star” as the character is played by Star Kirkland. She is the author of a comic called “Afrodyke,” and when Anne, played by Rachel Lambert, steps out of the TV seconds later, we discover that Anne is a fan.

We are then privy to a series of scenes in which Star and Anne attempt to connect on an interpersonal level while they are continually blocked by their views on race. These scenes are interspersed with those of Star and the two Guardian Angels of Blackness, played wonderfully by Mia Y. Anderson and Ayo Cummings. These two women work to explore Star’s own relationship with her Blackness, as opposed to the scenes with Anne, which also look at Blackness in relation to Whiteness. Throughout these scenes no tidy answer is implied or given, we are simply lead through a journey that makes us question the assumptions held by ourselves and others. This is Tulpa, or Anne & Me ’s greatest strength, as one of the purposes of theater is to challenge our views and expand our minds.

Where the production falters is in the pacing and timing. Part of this is actually due to the structure of the story, in which each scene contains its own climax while the story itself does not have a consistent arc. Director Sara Lyons does an excellent job of giving some of the scenes, especially those between Star and Anne, “realistic” pacing. The actors speak with the stops, starts, and pauses of normal conversation. It is rather startling to see this done on stage, and at first I thought that the actors were having trouble with their lines. When I realized it was a choice, I worried how that damaged the power of the play as a medium. When something is on stage, it is automatically not “realistic,” so instead it is up to the director to find the best pacing and tone for the piece to convey its message. In this case, her choices leave the piece feeling very long, even though it does not even run to its advertised 90 minute mark.

In between the breathy sighs and frequent pauses, I still believe that Tulpa, or Anne & Me has a certain something. My hope is that the artists can learn from these comments and the experience of this production, and that the piece is looked at dramaturgically before its next run. In the meantime, if you are really interested in issues of race then you should go see this show. At least then you’ll know what to say to Anne Hathaway if she ever climbs slowly out of your TV set.

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Getting Real

The subject of reality television wouldn’t seem to have a place in the world of New York theater. One is an artless medium in which people try to sell themselves as celebrities; the other is an ageless art form involving trained professionals collaborating to tell a story. And yet, Cut, Crystal Skillman’s strongly observed new comedy-drama, charts the quest of three young Los Angeles reality television writers for dignity and fulfillment. Drama is drama, it seems, no matter where you find it. Reality television is alternately known as “Unscripted” television, admitting that the true lives documented aren’t necessarily “real.” They are people playing canned versions of themselves. But even the term “unscripted” is inaccurate. Networks hire aspiring writers to find thematic links and build conflict based on the recorded footage of reality stars.

What is so smart about Cut is how Skillman is able to take some very traditional sentiments and merge them with a very current feel so that they never seem trite. And as a result, all three of her characters are instantly recognizable. Danno (Joe Varca) is the story editor of “The Ladies of Malibu,” a fictional look at the fabulous and base lives of some rich SoCal ladies, but he’s an NYU grad who went west with the hopes of becoming an actor. Rene (Nicole Beerman) is the off-camera interviewer, but at one time was a highly-regarded writer. And Colette (Megan Hill), who catalogs the endless hours of “Ladies” footage, really wants to dance.

The three fly into crisis mode when management rejects the original season finale they compile. Now they have just a few hours to cobble together an improved version (Kyle Dixon’s cluttered production office set, coupled with Grant Wilcoxen's smart lighting, is totally believable). Adding to the pressure is a series of individual personal crises afflicting each of these three writers that rivals the material they assemble professionally. Danno carries a torch for Rene and also bears an enormous amount of guilt for abandoning his sister. Rene is in the middle of a divorce, while Colette not only feels overwhelmed by the job, but is also guarding a secret.

There’s an obvious, if artful, irony to this. Danno, Rene and Colette are adept at looking at others' lives to tell a story. They can chart the path of the coulds, woulds, and shoulds for the five women of “Malibu.” But when it comes to examining where their own lives need to go, they each hit a blind spot.

Director Meg Sturiano nimbly stages the show, which is peppered by the three characters’ reality-style confessions to the audience, with aplomb. (The show’s back-and-forth flashback structure does, however, take a little while to get used to). Skillman’s monologues feel so emotionally honest that they are riveting. And the playwright has an equally gifted ear for dialogue. There are carefully measured cadences to the lines delivered by Danno, Rene and Colette, but the scenes feel realistic, never overly stylized.

This is, of course, also a credit to the cast. Beerman laces her scenes with traces of weariness and regret, suggesting an enormity about the Rene’s journey prior to “Malibu,” and there is an amusing counterbalance between her and Hill’s more frenetic Colette. In particular, Hill digs deepest to show a complex portrait of a woman who has to face some scary adult choices, and yet she never losses Skillman’s sense of humor. One monologue regarding mail-order pills is riotous.

Varca is a solid actor, but eventually some of Danno’s hemming and hawing does feel repetitive. It’s terrible to say, but I found myself wishing that the character wasn’t such a “nice” guy. Danno could benefit from some more darkness, and I would like to have seen Varca get to play him with more edge. Perhaps several more shades of aggressiveness would enhance Danno’s later exchanges with Rene.

That said, Cut remains a smart look at not only reality television’s role in society but also at the changing landscape for show business in general. Talented, hungry writers must increasingly forgo substantial work to take flimsier paying gigs. Here’s hoping that’s a fate that never befalls Skillman.

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Clown Porn

Ever heard of clown porn? Google it, see what comes up. Or head down to the Red Room to catch Animalparts’ fun production of Miranda Huba’s Dirty Little Machine. It’s a play dealing with, laughing at, possibly even warning about the depths of influence pornography has reached in this country, performed in an imaginative form of clowny physical theater. You’ll be surprised how a perfectly mimed threesome (performed by two actors) can tickle your (funny) bone. Huba kicks the play off with one of many narrated monologues, told in a mildly seductive fashion by the young and talented Joanne Wilson (Jane). She describes finding a disturbing pornographic novel at age thirteen (apparently a true event in Huba’s life), which eventually leads her toward the following decision: She will “seek out the most degenerate, repulsive, douchebag she can find and date him- in order that she may either fulfill her deep-seated sexual fantasies OR renounce all disempowering desires and become a true feminist.”

As we know, weasels are not hard to find, and Jane swiftly finds Dick (the exuberant Ben Mann) and promptly has silhouette sex with the loser. As the relationship between the couple develops, director Nathan Schwartz smoothly moves the scene from one location to the next, making clever use of the limited space of the Red Room. We watch Dick gradually lose his sex drive, openly watching more and more porn on Jane’s computer. Whenever things take a turn to the worse, Jane chooses to resign herself to further humiliation. It comes to a climax with Dick’s delightful question: “What are you going to do for me to get you an abortion?” Jane’s naughty response: “Anything…”

Aside from a few funny moments in the script, Schwartz manages to infuse the play with outrageous physical humor and other clown techniques. There is a sense of physical exploration and freedom that gives even the weightier moments an airy comic undertone. Both actors seem comfortable moving from narration to dialogue to physical buffoonery.

For Animalparts, one of the most interesting young theater companies to emerge on the scene in the last couple years, this play marks a transition. The play employs their frenetic blend of physical theater, wild video and sound design, and oddly touching bits of quasi-realistic insanity. This time, however, they are daring to use it toward a piece of more direct commentary.

Just when the storyline begins to lose its immediacy, Huba adds a smart subplot. Borrowing from the novel the author found when she was thirteen, Jane recounts the story of a young girl who learns to enjoy her uncle’s sexual manipulations. The blending and interplay between the relationship of Dick and Jane, and that narrated in the story of the pedophile uncle, give the evening renewed strength, and challenge the audience’s sense of decency.

Still, however dark, the play fails to shock us in an unfamiliar way, by dreaming up new horrid forms of domination and fantasy (although it does offer some funny scenarios, like a porn scene between a sleepy middle-aged husband and his boring wife). Instead of taking us further, there is a sense of stating what we already know about porn and society.

The play seems to be exploring feminism through the lens of fantasy and domination. How does pornography, and the tremendous freedom to humiliate and be humiliated by the other gender, play into contemporary feminism? Is there any form of female liberation inherent in porn? Does the humiliation of men in the form of dominatrix, another aspect of pornography portrayed in the play, tell us anything about women’s empowerment? Probably not, says the play, since even those scenes tend to end in a facial cum shot.

The evening does end with a warning of what these games of domination, explored so thoroughly online, can lead to. I walked out feeling as though the play was intended to be some new form of feminism, but actually worked the other way. There is a falseness to the premise, which the lead character never understands – “A true feminist,” as Jane thinks she might become, does not ignore and repress her natural inclination toward dominating and being dominated. She accepts that domination is part of her inner world and works with that to empower herself. Instead, in the play, she allows those impulses to lead to her ultimate disempowerment.

Still, Huba has drafted a rich offering, and Schwartz, Wilson and Mann flesh it into an enticing evening of theater.

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Death on the Nile

The Sphinx Winx, a dire goulash of a musical, is an artifact unearthed from half a century ago. The creators wrote the show back in the early 1950s when they were attending Dickinson College. The script lay dormant all these years until librettist Robert Heuch pulled it out, thought it had possibilities, and contacted his collaborators to polish it up. They include composer and lyricist Ken Hitchner Jr. and his wife, Anne, who reworked the book with Philip Capice and Heuch. The result might provoke nostalgia for an earlier time if you have an urge to revisit a wildly overextended sketch on a 1950s TV variety show or, possibly, a labored skit in a theatrical revue of the period, like New Faces. It’s a show of sheer tomfoolery, and perhaps only clowns of the caliber of Sid Caesar or Milton Berle could make it work. Characters talk to the audience, react to sound effects, and put on inappropriate accents, such as Southern U.S., cockney, and upper-crust Brit, for no apparent reason. Anachronistic references abound but have little comic effect: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”; “Don’t cry for me, blessed Egypt!”; “Crecia, quick. Peel me a grape.” And an important message from Rome is written in hieroglyphics.

The plot involves Cleopatra’s failure to pay tribute to Rome for 14 months. Antony has been sent out to do an audit. Caesar (played by Bruce Sabath with a Jack Gilford nebbishness) says he doesn’t know where the money is, although he’s been showering gifts on Cleopatra, including building a sphinx that winks. Erika Amato’s vain, changeable queen is smitten by the strapping Antony, of course, and Antony falls in love with Cleopatra’s slave girl, Crecia.

Although much of the humor comes off as sophomoric, it’s really classic comic schtick. Sample: when Lunia reports to Cleopatra that Antony has been seen with her servant, the empress turns jealous: “Who was with him? Was it Rose? Or Lily? Or that Philodendron?” One can imagine that line scoring with Imogene Coca or Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett, but not here. In spite of the show’s try-anything spirit, it just doesn’t come together under Matthew Hamel’s direction. Indeed, much of the acting carries a strong whiff of desperation.

The writers have borrowed liberally and perhaps unwisely from better shows. The Soothsayer (an egregiously mugging Ryan Williams, with pink spectacles) introduces himself and claims to know from a recently discovered manuscript the true story of Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Marc Antony, and his opening number is modeled on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Whether it existed in the original version of Sphinx, which predates Forum by a decade, is difficult to judge, but it feels unlikely.

Later, Julius’s daughter Lunia (Beth Cheryl Tarnow, skillful in an irritating role) proves too meddlesome to the wily, slave-girl heroine, and is coaxed into a sarcophagus for a long-distance trip, much like Lorraine Sheldon in The Man Who Came to Dinner. A song that Caesar delivers about his numerous female conquests rather uncomfortably reminds one of “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” from Kiss Me, Kate. To be fair, if you’re going to steal, Cole Porter is a great guy to steal from. (And heck, he stole from himself—“They Couldn’t Compare to You” from Out of This World recycles the same concept.)

Still, the score is serviceable, and the lyrics are sturdy and sometimes clever, especially in Cleopatra’s opening number. A dream of Antony’s and a song, “Act Yourself,” in which doctors try to revive a fainted Cleopatra, also have amusing moments, but tellingly, neither interlude is crucial to the slim plot.

However, as in New Faces, some pleasurable talent breaks through. On his first entrance, Bret Shuford makes an impression as a sharply drawn messenger (in spite of a cockney accent) announcing Antony’s approach. Shortly after, he enters as the general himself, bringing an authority and heroic masculinity to Antony that are winning. His love ballads with Rebecca Riker’s slave girl Crecia are sweet and wholesome highlights of the production. Shuford, who also has a few opportunities to show off his dancing, may not rise above the material in the final courtroom scene, but he never stoops for a laugh; his Antony is all of a piece.

Riker also combines charm with a lovely singing voice, and does quite a good impression of Sarah Palin when she plays Enobarbus, a female attorney, in the climactic court scene. Still, one suspects that if she and Shuford weren’t the love interest and had more to do with the comic business, their talents would be swamped as well.

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Man of Music

Stylish and elegant, The Best Is Yet to Come is a fitting tribute to the late Cy Coleman (he died in 2004 at 75). Coleman hit his stride in the 1960s, with shows like Little Me and Sweet Charity, and his last Broadway outing was The Life, in 1997. Along the way, with a variety of lyricists, he penned music to hits like On the Twentieth Century, The Will Rogers Follies, I Love My Wife, and City of Angels, not to mention pop standards like “Witchcraft.” David Zippel, Coleman’s lyricist for City of Angels, is the director for this savvy retrospective, which blends much of the composer’s most famous show tunes—“Hey, Look Me Over,” “Big Spender,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” “It’s Not Where You Start”—with several entries from City of Angels and another Coleman-Zippel collaboration called N*, about Napoleon, which has apparently gone unproduced. There are scattered pop tunes from the late master’s oeuvre as well.

An eight-piece band inhabits the stage; Douglas W. Schmidt has backed them with a glittering silhouette of a harp at stage left, and a wall of ebonies and ivories at stage right. From upstage a staircase comes down, forking like an inverted Y on either side of the piano, sunk into a recess in the floor, where accompanist Billy Stritch conducts and plays. Three red roses in a glass vase suggest the elegance and simplicity of the evening (and are put to smart comic use as well).

There’s no narration, but the overall structure that Zippel employs is inventive. One number leads logically into another—with the actors conveying the emotions and relationships through the segues or the stage business at any given moment. Thus, Howard McGillin, on stage, sings “You Fascinate Me So” to Sally Mayes, Rachel York, and Lillias White. Establishing himself as a man and a player with only his carriage, inflections and smiles, McGillin at the end of the song tosses those roses to two of the women, and one into the audience, disappointing the third.

Later, after White sings “Don’t Ask a Lady,” David Burnham encounters her, there’s some byplay, and he sings “I’ve Got Your Number”—a nifty counterpoint. Establishing himself as a philanderer, he’s quickly subjected by White and York to “What You Don’t Know About Women” and pushed to the floor. (The song is from City of Angels, although it wasn’t one that York, who was in the original cast, got to deliver.) The battle-of-the-sexes undercurrent continues through the earlier part of the show, but the evening takes on deeper colors as it goes along.

The set makes for some awkwardness, however, as the steps limit choreographer Loren Lataro’s work—during “Those Hands,” a song paying tribute to Stritch, four performers sit on chairs, facing upstage, and basically danced with white-gloved hands.

Nonetheless, the musicianship is superb. Stritch not only conducts and occasionally sings (“It Amazes Me” and “Some Kind of Music”), but he participates drolly in the cast’s interactions.

White displays a warm vulnerability and a great belt, most notably when she recreates her show-stopper “ The Oldest Profession” from The Life, for which she won a Tony Award. The blond Mayes contributes a quotient of brassiness—“What I am is a broad,” she sings at one point—while still retaining a classy demeanor. York is a sultry sexpot, although she oversells herself at times to the point of seeming plastic. Burnham has a strong voice and delivers the standard, “Witchcraft,” strongly, with only a hint of Sinatra, who is so closely identified with it. McGillin, a stalwart Broadway star (he’s played the Phantom of the Opera longer than anyone), capitalizes on an ability to plumb the darker tones in “The Measure of Love,” a ballad about S&M from N*.

Zippel pays generous attention to the work he did with Coleman: four songs each from N* and City of Angels—although, to be fair, there are five from Little Me. But the selection leans heavily toward torch songs and more measured numbers, and the only bounce, until the final medley, comes in the title song from Little Me, sung delightfully by White and Stritch.

Unfortunately, that dearth of uptempo undermines York’s rendition of “Hey, Look Me Over,” introduced by Lucille Ball in Wildcat. One can applaud the ambition to make an audience hear a song in a different way, but in this case the song is taken too languidly. The brighter version would have been more welcome—as indeed, would anything from the wonderful Barnum score, which is ignored.

But those are quibbles. The final medley of “It’s Not Where You Start,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” “Hey There, Good Times,” and “We’re Nothing Without You” puts high spirits in the air, and the evening as a whole affords a great deal of pleasure in some wonderful music, well performed.

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Neither Saints Nor Winners

The brightly colored wall of the Ideal Glass Gallery, covered in artfully arranged graffiti and clothing, announces that you have reached the home of Saint Hollywood . Unfortunately for them, this eye-catching artwork is the most dynamic part of this deeply flawed show. The strong visual representations on the walls outside and inside the theater are beautiful, but this creative cacophony does not translate to the plot or characters that comprise the piece. To say that Saint Hollywood lacks a plot is both true and misleading. Plot is not necessary for my enjoyment of a show, as sometimes concepts are so powerful that they can form a coherent piece of theater. There is a story in this play, as we follow Willard Morgan on a journey through a cast of characters that populate Hollywood. Rather the problem is that the plot does not support the character. In other words, there is no unifying frame for the piece. We watch Morgan’s failing comedy routines, but we do not have any introduction to him that tells us how we are supposed to feel about this failure.

This problem continues as Morgan takes on the various other characters whose surreal pictures adorn the sides of the theater. Besides the fact that several of these characters seem to be little more than ethnic and gender stereotypes, there is an uneven balance between their stories and Morgan’s. After seeing the video footage that ends the show, I believe that this structure was meant to simulate Morgan’s experience of meeting these individuals. Yet this effect is lost in a one man show, where we never see Morgan seeing these people. They appear, but their function is unclear. And the undercurrents of rascism and misogyny possibly read into a white man playing some of these characters are not considered. The characters are not treated with kindness by their actor, and therefore it is difficult to understand how we are supposed to feel towards them.

Perhaps this is the danger in creating a musical around the idea of a comedian who can’t tell a joke. And a modern musical it is, complete with a live DJ on stage. Unfortunately, just as the video design by Alex Koch and Lucie Jeesun Lee is beautiful but unable to save the show, the DJ’s cutting is a great concept left hanging by unmemorable songs. It's too bad, as the two female cast members, Shannon Antalan and Zoe Rosario, have good voices. These two women are used mostly as decoration, and I am once again puzzled as to their function in the show as a whole.

The trope of great concepts poorly realized seems to be the trademark of Saint Hollywood . At the end of the show, Morgan says that he spends most of his life between the set-up and the punchline. This gap is exactly what is wrong with the show. It needs to decide what it wants to be. I don’t even know how to make suggestions for improvement, because in many ways the whole conceit of the piece is just that, conceited. There is no way to connect with this protagonist, and I’m not sure why we’re watching a show about him. I hope that this is something that Saint Hollywood figures out so that they can improve. In the meantime, look at the beautiful artwork, but then keep on walking.

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Tell Me More

Sometimes you really can tell. And I will tell you that T. Schreiber’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell is an utterly charming night at the theater. This well-done production does an excellent job of exploring the depths of Shaw’s words, making a somewhat dated play energized and relevant. From the minute the four servants of the play make the curtain speech in the intimate theater, You Never Can Tell endears itself to the audience. Here I must praise Robert Verlaque’s directing for his attention to detail. The simple act of having actors make the cell-phone and safety announcements is a formality that he uses instead to begin to establish character. The four servants are dispersed through the production in a way that proves once again that good characterization means that no part is small.

Of course, once the play has begun, we are introduced to our charismatic protagonist, the dentist Valentine (Lowell Byers). He is pulling out the tooth of an excitable lady named Dolly (Noelle P. Wilson), who is shortly joined by her brother Phil (Seth James). After discovering that the two siblings have no idea who their father is, the set-up for a series of coincidences and many instances of what the program refers to as the “Shavian paradox” (a way of saying the right thing at the wrong time).

The banter is witty and the comedy is drawing room, but it is the actors’ charisma and timing that keeps one engaged. Wilson’s bubbly energy and full commitment are perfectly balanced with James’s ability to switch between co-conspirator and more-mature brother. Their excellent comic timing immediately ingratiates them with the audience, and their duo becomes a solid anchor for the performance. It is by their interactions with these two that we learn what we do about all of the other characters, all of which are well-played in their own right. We see Gloria (Jessica Osborne) in all of her beauty and patience, Walter (Peter Judd) in his extreme affability, and Mrs. Clandon (Lucy Avery Brooke) in her motherly authority.

In the midst of all of the confusion of finding their father, there exists another matter of the heart. The love story between Valentine and Gloria is both humorous and touching. Byers and Osborne have good chemistry, and it is easy to root for them. There is a small matter of a vocal tick, as Osborne is often not “on her voice.” In other words, she does not fully support her words, causing the actress to have an affected manner of speaking that sounds constantly on the brink of tears. This is an understandable character choice, but I think it would be far more successful to be used at certain times, rather than as an overall treatment. But this is not to say that Osborne’s acting does not make up for this weakness, which it does. In a good love story, you should always want the characters to be together, which is precisely what happens here as a direct result of both of these actors.

The actors also have the benefit of a surprisingly versatile set. I say surprisingly because when I first looked at it I had no idea that it was movable. Although it is clear that they are working within budgetary constraints, Chris Minard’s design gives a good enough illusion of wealth. The scene changes sometimes take a bit of time, but it is the actors who do them, and they are therefore pleasant to watch. Andy Cohen’s sound design and Eric Cope’s lighting also help convince us that we are at a seaside resort.

Lucy Avery Brooke’s bio ends with the line, “She is grateful to all for reminding her that good theater is an actor’s best home.” Good theater is an audience member’s and a critic’s best home as well. Shows like You Never Can Tell make me happy. I enjoy seeing talented theater artists producing good work, and leaving with an audience who is smiling and laughing. You never can tell what you’re going to see when you walk into a theater, but you should walk into the Gloria Maddox Theatre and see You Never Can Tell .

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Teachers in Love

I probably should have had a better idea of what I was getting into by the title: Under the Blue Sky is not exactly original, and neither is the play. An exploration of unspoken love and obsession in the workplace, it aims to be specific in its focus on British schoolteachers. Instead, it strikes some very well-known chords: unrequited-feelings-between-best-friends (in G), unhealthy-obsession (D minor), and-love-that-overcomes-great-obstacles (C major, of course). It is relatively well-executed, but generally underwhelming. The play is split into three acts. Each is a scene between two teachers in which the nature of the relationship is revealed. In Act 1, we meet best friends Helen and Nick. They are making dinner, chatting, flirting, and all is going well until Nick, almost all at once, tells Helen he’s moving away, he knows Helen is desperately in love with him, and he doesn’t know how he feels about Helen. Helen is mortified, and then turns a knife on Nick, begging him to stay. In the end they decide they’ll go on holiday together in a few months.

Act 2 finds us in a bedroom late at night, with Graham and Michelle. Their relationship (and the scene) is a kind of grotesque amplification of Helen and Nick’s: Graham is obsessed with Michelle, and Michelle, aware of the fact, is planning to sleep with Graham to make her ex-boyfriend jealous. She is terribly cruel to Graham, who in response to this cruelty reveals that he has been stalking Michelle for years, taking photos of her with other men, entering her room at night, the whole kit n’ caboodle. Act 3 is a scene between Anne and Robert, good friends with 20 years between them. This relationship, despite its oddities, proves to be the healthiest and most plausible of the three: things end well for Anne and Robert, at least.

Performances are generally strong. Standouts include Sarah Manton, who plays Helen, jittery and staccato in her excitement and attempts to remain composed as Nick devastates and embarrasses her. Jonathan Tindle (Graham) also elicits empathy as he takes insult after insult from Michelle, quietly kindling with pain and anger as she carelessly hurls cruelties his way. Elizabeth Jasicki’s drunken ramblings as Michelle are far too drawn out; one gets the point (she is terribly selfish and mean, particularly to Graham) about 10 minutes into the scene, and it continues for another twenty. This also may be a fault of the script, which could use some editing, here in particular. Christine Rendel and Richard Hollis are interesting and entertaining as Anne and Robert, and convincing as good friends, but little chemistry exists between the two as lovers. After they confess their love to each other and kiss passionately, the two separate and spend the rest of the scene several feet away from one another, as though the revelation never occurred.

The space, the Kraine Theater, is one of those downtown beasts with lights that go on and off at will, and technical malfunctions are an expectation more than an exception. There’s a charm in this, but it cannot be ignored: the space refuses to let you forget you are in a theater, so you can’t fully lose yourself in what is supposed to be a kitchen or a back deck. Kristen Costa’s design attempts to acknowledge this in some ways, and ignores it in others. Sets for all three scenes are onstage for the entire play, and action is confined to 1/3 of the space each time, a very theatrical choice. But each set is pretty detailed, with multiple props and dressings: characters actually cook in the kitchen, which smells great, but ultimately backfires. It places too much attention on the set in a space that can’t support realism. Furthermore, it is unnecessary in this play that is about the relationships between characters, not the spaces they inhabit. In short, it distracts.

I should note that Under the Blue Sky includes some well-turned phrases and interesting back and forth, particularly in the first and third scenes. In each scene, the nature of the relationship between the two characters is revealed slowly, bit by bit, which provides some satisfaction in watching. David Eldridge has written a solid play. I just wish it managed to tap into something beyond the relationships themselves, revealed something about teaching, or even illustrated British culture. Mind the Gap’s mission statement is to bring British theater (and I would think British culture) to American audiences, after all. But change a few phrases, and the play could have been about American nurses or Canadian businesspeople. This play has nothing to tell us that we don’t already know. It entertains, but does not inform. See it on a first date, if you prefer theater to the movies, but otherwise, you’ll be OK without.

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A Feast for the Ears

Radio Play, created and written by Reggie Watts and Tommy Smith, is an extended surreal riff on the radio plays of old with Watts as the central performer. Gone are the linear story lines, but the elements – compelling story, dramatic sound effects, classic advertising jingles, and intrigue – remain. These elements are interwoven with Watt’s unique humor, satirical commentary, and musical wit. The stage space, designed by Seth Reiser, is alive and cluttered. A painting of Napoleon on his horse with Watt’s face replacing Napoleon’s is prominently lit upstage. A record plays on an old box player. An old faux wood paneled television is on, but only static fills the screen. A reel-to-reel is spinning with no film, and various pieces of old equipment – cassette players, stereos, sound and light boards - blink in green and red. They must be doing something, or are they merely retro traces of days gone by? Lurking in the shadows are a couple of actors and two sound artists waiting for the house to fill and the evening to start (or has it already begun?). “Evil” looms in red lights above a door upstage center.

Suddenly a bright light shoots across the space and there is silence. A women, Jen Rondeau, enters and makes her way around the space toward the light. Standing, backlit, she quietly raises her left hand and the eerie sounds of a theremin fill the room, reminding me of 1950’s and 60’s science fiction shows and murder mysteries. And we are off - catapulted into an organized chaos, an absurdist surreal daydream created by Watts and Smith.

This is audio drama for today’s audience. The narrative is a nonlinear mash-up of story fragments and summaries, pop culture references, songs, advertising, beat boxing, and sound effects with references stretching across decades. This timelessness is complemented by costuming, designed by Jessica Pabst, evocative of retro 30’s through the 50’s and today.

Watts and Smith use the form of radio plays to take the audience on a familiar yet disconcerting journey. A cacophony of advertising jingles is simultaneously suggestive of each product and phonically melds into a single rhythmic soundscape. A pastoral tale of a couples’ camping trip leads to infidelity and is punctuated by the loud loss of bodily control. One man escapes the mundane into a mysterious fog where everything is o.k. And a game show participant, actress Mary Jane Gibson, dramatically summarizes the entire plot of the film Fatal Attraction with poignant use of vocal effects – “plink…plink.”

Radio Play is directed by Kip Fagan; additional actors are Beth Hoyt, Marshall York, and H.I. Bonner. Gibson also contributed additional writing to the production. This theatrical entertainment – and entertaining it is – is intended to be heard more than seen, yet the immediacy of live performance is vital to the show. Radio Play is an audio feast – funny, illusive, satirical, dramatic – with minimal visual stimuli. It gives our ears and imaginations a chance to play.

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Radio Drama

When the house opens for Murrow’s Boys, currently playing at Brooklyn’s gorgeous Irondale Center, the eight member ensemble dances onstage. To get to the house seats, newly arriving audience members cross through the performance space, where the cast invites them to join in the revelry. The casual intimacy of ensmemble members’ invitations is warm, startling, and a bit awkward. It is a perfect note on which to start a play that depicts the fits and starts which accompanied the advent of broadcast journalism, a medium that offered listeners an unprecedentedly personal connection to foreign events. Edward R. Murrow, recently memorialized by George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck as the TV reporter who refused to be cowed by McCarthyism, is here depicted at the start of his journalism career. As chief Europe radio correspondent for CBS, Murrow put together a team of reporters who launched their careers – and, in a sense, radio – by bringing World War II home to the American public. The team came to be known as Murrow’s Boys; Murrow’s Boys tells their story.

It’s compelling stuff: a smart group of journalists inexperienced in radio cuts their teeth covering one of the biggest events in human history. The ensemble cast does a solid job of bringing an everyday affability to characters who find themselves tasked with the thrilling if frightening job of relaying international news in a time of crisis. Gabriel King’s Murrow is a principled young man and an enthused workalholic with a dignified confidence in his team. Kate Garfield, as Mary Marvin Breckenridge, “the only woman among the Boys,” has the self possessesion and poise required of a clever career woman who must assume from the first that her job will eventually go to a man (and it does). Exhaustive research into each member of Murrow’s team clearly went into the production, and it is impressive how seamlessly woven together their stories appear onstage. Still more detailed biographies are available on the Irondale website, at url.

Written by director Jim Neisen, together with the Irondale Ensemble, and utilizing copy of broadcasts written by the reporters whose lives the play depicts, Murrow’s Boys is part performed history, part media investigation. As a means of reminding audiences how timely it is to think about how people consume news and the impact of mediation on public opinion – what voices inform how we think? – the production intersperses its historical drama with snippets of present day voices. “I'm standing in for a ….” begins each of these segments, in which an ensemble member lists a few demographical attributions (region, age), before sharing a first person account of how that person gets the news (Fox News, Rachel Maddow, Stephen Colbert), and why. Those segments do a sufficient job of extending the play’s focus into the present day, but the connections are already there, ever present themes of the historical drama. The real heart of the production lies in its narration of the how a new medium altered the landscape of war journalism.

Despite contemporary fixation with our own new media (and the ensuing, so-called “twitter revolutions,”) Murrow’s Boys suggests an extent to which new media merely provide a new perspective to atrocities that have long existed. It deserves special credit for its brief depiction of the liberation of Buchenwald, which a recitation of Murrow’s famous broadcast from the Concentration Camp underscores. Theatrical depictions of the Holocaust (indeed, depictions of the Holocaust in any medium) are fraught with complicated issues of representation. Murrows Boys succeeds with an enactment that is simultaneously horrific and respectful, quiet and moving, experiential and removed.

Murrow's Boy's has just been extended through June 3rd. Don't miss it.

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Marriage is What Brings Us Together Today

A heterosexual documentary film duo convinces married couples to file for divorce, in the name of gay marriage, and then films them during the year they live apart. Sound obnoxious? Well, yeah. The wonderful feat performed by Purple Rep’s The Unmarrying Project lies in its ability to take unlikable protagonists engaged in a useless political exercise, and still tell a savvy story. Written by Larry Kunofsky and directed by Rachel Eckerling, The Unmarrying Project boasts an ensemble cast so stellar, choosing standouts is impossible. As the filmmakers who instigate the project, Nic Grelli and Jolly Abraham nail the part of documentarians proud of their quirk, ambitious in their goals, and overconfident in their political potency.

The rest of the ensemble members each play a wide variety of roles with specificity and grace -- and they are a delightfully diverse bunch of characters. An elderly Westchester couple, modern orthodox Jews, a lesbian couple, a gay male couple, all happily married, as well as a straight couple married but perhaps less happily so, each agree to participate in the project. Conceived as an act of civil disobedience, the plan is for the couples to file for divorce and live apart for a year (the amount of time New York state requires to grant divorce) as an act of protest: if gay couples can’t marry, these couples will dissolve their own marriages!

Perhaps the most politically salient aspect of the play comes from how little its exploration of gay marriage deals with, well, gays. Marriage is marriage, as evidenced by the devastating fallout which inevitably accompanies the voluntary separation of people who love one another. The play nods at more radical ideas of romantic unions by briefly questioning the utility of monogamy (as well as by depicting the horrifying codependency with which each pair of characters is plagued) but the bulk of the play’s energy is devoted to examining coupledom.

Watching the dissolution of loving and committed relationships, however misguided the experiment, is, by turns, laugh out loud funny and heart achingly poignant. As a playwright, Kunofsky has a great ear for dialogue and authenticity as he gives voice to a diverse group of characters. To director Eckerling’s credit, the text is never didactic, and even plotlines with the most foreseeable outcomes maintain a sense of urgency.

If the play is to have a life beyond Purple Rep – and it should – Kunofsky will have to shave some time off of the two and a half hour length. Still, as an inaugural production for this new theater company, dedicated to running two productions in repertory, The Unmarried Project marks the Purple Rep as an emerging group to watch for smart, exuberant theater.

The Unmarrying Project runs in rotating rep with Mariah MacCarthy’s The All American Gender Cabaret. To get the supertext of the two productions, billed together as Gay Plays for Straight People, catch that one, too. This play about couples is, itself, coupled.

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Casualties of War

Named an “Off-Off Broadway Innovator to Watch” by Time Out New York, Brooklyn-based 31 Down continues to strengthen its individual brand of cross media performance with Here At Home, now playing at the intimate and charming non-profit Bushwick Starr. Here At Home strives to be both a real and surreal portrait of how war affects friends and families at home, but the unfocused script by Eric Bland is overshadowed by the show’s dazzling sound and video design.

The show begins provocatively enough. Act One takes place in Anytown, USA behind a Wal-Mart on what can best be described as “the smoking block.” Megastore employees Holly (a stone-faced Hollis Witherspoon) and Frank (an effusively passionate D.J. Mendel) are on break, contemplating their ennui in a scene that resembles a mumblecore update of Eric Bogosian’s subUrbia.

Holly’s soldier boyfriend is stationed overseas and has been sending increasingly disturbing messages back home. Ex-veteran Frank served in the Middle East and knows the atrocities of war firsthand. References to Socrates and Kant are dropped nonchalantly into their conversation to accentuate the existential crises of the characters, although their discontent comes off more like boredom than internal pain. Wherehere their speeches seem disaffected and disinterested, however, the visuals that surround them are anything but.

During the opening voiceover, silhouettes are scratched away behind Holly’s face on the stage’s backdrop. Later, Holly and Frank are synchronized with what I can only describe as their own “pixel shadows.” And in the final scene of Act One, a green horizontal laser beam slowly scans up and down Holly’s body, then transforms into a wide white swath.

In addition to these arresting visuals, at certain points in Act One the theater plunges into darkness and a throbbing, pulsing soundscape takes over. The exploding sounds of war emanate from all directions, creating a palpable sense of fear and panic. It’s a trippy, visceral feeling reverberated in your seat and in the seat of your pants.

Act Two squanders this disturbing and unsettling mood. In a confusing fantasy section more misbegotten than misogynistic, Frank and his loutish friend Mike (energetically played by the sound and video designer Eric Holsopple) traipse through a corpse-filled battlefield dressed as women. Or are they actually supposed to be women? The play then ends with a whimper as opposed to a bang with a diatribe from Frank who seems to be speaking in the voice of Holly’s boyfriend Matt (played by the show’s writer Eric Bland), who appears onstage but does not utter a word.

31 Down co-founders Holsopple and Shannon Sindelar (who directed Here At Home) are veterans of such groundbreaking contemporary companies as Nature Theater of Oklahoma, The Wooster Group, and the Ontological-Hysteric Theater of Richard Foreman. Their recent successes including Red Over Red and The Assembler Dilator have garnered critical acclaim and made them a buzz-worthy group to watch. Meant to build on that reputation, Here At Home unfortunately never ascends to the emotional heights of its visual and aural sensations.

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Every Inch a King

King Lear, with its epic sweep and enormous cast, is hard to get just right, but Michael Grandage’s production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is overwhelmingly right and a must-see event. In Derek Jacobi, Grandage has a magisterial Lear, speaking the language with clarity and beauty and making sense—emotionally—even of the nonsense in the mad scenes.

The aged Iron Age king, as Shakespeareans know, has determined to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. But first he wants some flattery from them. The two eldest praise their father, while Lear’s favorite, Cordelia, responds that she has nothing to say and loses her third of the kingdom. Lear, of course, has his daughters’ true affections completely backwards. The combination of foolishness, vanity, irascibility, and majesty is hard to get just right, but Grandage and Jacobi have struck a winning balance in the crucial opening scene.

Though Jacobi’s Lear seems prickly and vain, he’s not so excessively overbearing that he seems to have planned to wring claims of affection from his daughters. It’s a thought that strikes Lear suddenly in Jacobi’s interpretation, and the direness of the situation is leavened by some brilliant stage business. Before Gina McKee’s Goneril, as the eldest, speaks, Jacobi holds up his hand to stop her: then he points to his cheek, she kisses it obediently, and he motions for her to continue. The comedy of the moment pays more dividends shortly after: when Justine Mitchell’s Regan is invited to begin, she unhesitatingly kisses Lear’s cheek, and he lets out a satisfied sigh to indicate that she’s just a bit better at knowing her duty than Goneril. These details are early indicators of how deeply Grandage and his actors have examined the text, and their humor helps rein in one’s inclination to outrage at the king’s abuse of Cordelia.

Jacobi’s Lear, while not blameless in his fate, justifies his assessment that he is “more sinned against than sinning.” It’s painful to see his fear that he may go mad, and when he finally becomes a sympathetic human being, he’s transcendent. He’s boosted by fine acting from the two antagonistic daughters. Both McKee’s Goneril and Mitchell’s Regan show unexpected sparks of humanity from time to time. Goneril cries when Lear puts a curse of sterility on her—a curse that Jacobi makes shocking. And even amid Regan’s later cruelties, Mitchell manages to show how painfully she loves Edmund.

There’s been a lot of judicious pruning of the mad scenes, both Lear’s and those of Gwilym Lee’s dashing, protective Edgar, to blend horror and grim comedy without alienating the audience with obscure references. In Act IV the mad Lear says, “There’s hell, there’s darkness.” In Jacobi’s reading, Lear mimics looking into a vagina—it’s very funny and yet draws on a classic Freudian fear.

There are minor quibbles, to be sure. It’s silly for Edgar to tell the blind Gloucester (a fine Paul Jesson, providing a sanguine parental counterpoint to Lear’s ire) to “look up” at the height from which he’s fallen when Gloucester has empty, bloody sockets, and Edgar is supposed to be a sighted passerby who’d notice that. And Alec Newman’s robust Edmund, one of Shakespeare’s juiciest roles, isn’t mesmerizing enough and doesn’t boost the character beyond stock melodramatic villain to something special. Gideon Turner’s Duke of Cornwall is the most disappointing: a 21st-century swaggering bully from a schoolyard playground, his duke lacks any gravitas.

Grandage keeps the action moving swiftly in front of Christopher Oram’s curved set of high plank walls stippled in white, gray and brown. Later on, Neil Austin’s lighting makes the wall look carved in stone, yet even more astonishing is the storm scene; on the heath, lights flash beneath the stage floor and through cracks in the upright planks to simulate a torrent of rain, and the sound design of Adam Cork thunderously complements the effect.

Amid such high-caliber work, Jacobi's performance is still the crown jewel, exhibiting a mastery of timing and intonation. “I do not like the fashion of your garments,” the mad Lear says to Edgar, who’s in a loincloth on the heath. Then, as if anticipating the explanation: “You will say they are Persian.” It’s a very funny leap of imagination and the audience follows easily—never mind that Lear wouldn’t know the way Persians of his time dressed. It’s a measure of the success of the production that one cares about this choleric old man who has brought so much trouble down on his own head.

Tickets are scarce, but if you can score one, this is a King Lear that will stay in your memory a very long time.

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Life Is In the Folds

Five lives intersect in Paper Cranes, the new offering by Packawallop Productions. And though Kari Bentley-Quinn’s script might initially appear to follow a familiar path involving interconnected characters, there is plenty of interesting fodder in this sturdy work. The thru line in Cranes is pretty easy to grasp. Mona (Cynthia Silver) is a widowed mother of a nineteen-year-old girl, Maddie (Sarah Lord). Maddie, a young lesbian who has yet to come out, hooks up with the more sensitive, older Julie (Melissa Hammans), whose best friend is Amy (Susan Louise O’Connor). Amy, meanwhile, has begun a semi-anonymous relationship with David (Eric T. Miller), who is in the same grief counseling group as…Mona.

Yet as cut-and-dried as this description might be, Bentley-Quinn’s play is anything but. Director Scott Ebersold has collected a winning ensemble of actors who provide plenty of substance to Cranes. This show could have been a mawkish look at lonely hearts, but wisely sidesteps such a choice. It is actually savvy reflection of modern life and mating rituals. These characters all know how to find people. Meeting someone – even sleeping with someone – is facile to them.

It’s how to reconcile with what comes next that each member of this quintet must grapple with in their own way. They are all masking their own private hurt. Maddie, for instance, longs for her late father, who was her confidante. David has yet to begin recovering from his girlfriend’s untimely death. Even Amy, who at first might seem to be the most in-control of this group, has her own demons to keep at bay.

It almost seems unnecessary to mention how convincing the marvelous O’Connor is as Amy, but it should be said. The actress mines all sorts of depth to imbue the character with a sultry yet sad vibe. Amy knows she has a lot going for her, but there’s still something missing, and she doesn’t know how to fill that void. It’s a gorgeously calibrated performance.

Equally well-staged by both Ebersold and the team of Hammans and Lord is the budding romance between Julie and Maddie. Both actresses are certainly impressive physically. Their love scenes are a convincing look at a couple in the early stage of their relationship, when the body rush takes over and just a hint of awkwardness persists. But the emotional link between the two is equally accurate, demonstrating that despite a fifteen-year age gap between the two, they really might have a deep bond.

Miller, too, does an admirable job of channeling David’s dark side and slowly revealing just what might be motivating his actions. He is arresting in his scenes with O’Connor, but shares even more chemistry in his tender scenes with Silver, who melds weary and worry with dry humor marvelously. It is to the credit of Ebersold and his cast that they never manipulate the audience’s emotions. Our sympathy with each of these characters always remains organic.

Bentley-Quinn clearly has great affection for each of these characters. Even when they feel like familiar types, something we have seen before, she has drawn them so sharply that we soon learn they are all worth caring about and paying attention to. The same can be said for this smart production – and the playwright as well.

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Brothers Brawl, Everyone Bawls

I do not have a great deal to say about Barefoot Theater Company's Teeth of the Sons , written by Joseph Sousa and performed at the Cherry Lane Theater, mainly because it does not have a great deal to offer. By cramming a series of melodramatic tropes into the storyline and presenting these tropes relatively solidly, it held my attention for its duration, but no more than an episode of General Hospital might. The biggest difference here is that General Hospital knows what it is and where it stands in pop culture today. Teeth of the Sons is mid-grade melodrama posing as high art, taking itself far too seriously to be stomached. The play begins with a reunion between estranged brothers Sam (steadily performed by Will Allen), who has been incommunicado for years, and Jacob, (played by Sousa) a mild-mannered Hasidic scholar. Sam has returned to their hometown, Brooklyn, because his girlfriend, Maddy, (Casandera M.J. Lollar) is pregnant, her family has kicked her out, and the two need a place to stay.

This lays the groundwork for a plethora of arguments between Jacob and Sam, Sam and Maddy, Maddy and Jacob, even Jacob and his long-time ex girlfriend Evelyn, who shows up as a bangled, beaded, long-skirted deus-ex machina near the play’s end. Arguments center on religious doctrine, familial duties, morality, and abortion. One would think that so much arguing would produce interesting insights into these subjects: one would be wrong. Little is said that hasn't been heard on an after school special. When characters aren't arguing, they are calming themselves down, or crying, or trying not to cry, on the phone to their estranged parents who come across as heartless, unfeeling, terrible people.

It is clear that Sousa and director Nicole Haron spent much more time thinking about plot than character development, which is problematic in a one-room play with three main characters. Inconsistencies abound: for example, we are supposed to believe that Jacob once was a carbon-copy of his brother, an irresponsible, care-free partier with no regard for anyone but himself. But Sousa's Jacob is so mild-mannered, so reserved and sweet that it's impossible to believe this is true.

At one point, Sam gets Jacob to take a shot of whiskey with him, and as Jacob does so, he cringes and grimaces like a boy who's never tasted it before. This is comical, but it makes no sense if he was once as big a drinker as Sam. Sam and Jacob are completely different in every way, from the way they carry themselves to speech patterns to complexion. There is nothing to indicate that they are brothers, that they share an upbringing and a past.

Near the end of the play, Jacob's high school girlfriend, Evelyn, shows up, and through an impassioned speech, Evelyn reveals to the audience that Jacob was not the nicest of guys at sixteen: he dumped her and then turned her away when she came sobbing at his doorstep. Evelyn tears into Jacob, and Jacob takes full blame for his former self. He confesses to taking cold showers to repent his behavior to her. No one ever brings up the fact that Jacob and Evelyn were kids when they dated, and likely made major mistakes due in large part to their immaturity. It’s an odd omission that suggests none of these characters (or the playwright) have gained much perspective over time.

The technical elements do not add much shine to this dull script. The set is realistically rendered, and would have worked fine if the director and designers hadn’t felt the need to emphasize the fact. There are many practical lights on the set. I have never seen lights turned on and off so often and so unnecessarily in one play before. Perhaps director Nicole Haran was trying to break some kind of record. I can see no other reason for making such a choice.

In conclusion, I would not recommend this play to most. Perhaps if you are particularly interested in Hasidic Judaism, the Holocaust, abortion, and soap operas, and there's nothing good on TV, and you live in the West Village already, and aren't interested in any movies playing...maybe then, you might consider Teeth of the Sons, but otherwise, I'd say pass.

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