“Remember that one Thanksgiving when your nearest and dearest sat down for a quiet game of Monopoly, but then your grandma got drunk and revealed a rich tradition of inbreeding? Well, tonight should be something like that…except with a lot more vodka.”
Every now and then a theatrical experience comes around that breaks the mold. It’s no simple task to categorize Gideon Irving’s performance piece running at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Part musical, part stand-up comedy, (very small) part magic act, and part intriguing night in a complete stranger’s living room, My Name Is Gideon: I’m Probably Going to Die, Eventually is far from a one-trick pony. On the contrary, the hour-and-45-minute show is constantly surprising audience members with laughs, gasps, songs and even snacks!
Can a trial change history? What happens when standards of behavior are violated and not brought to public reckoning? The Trial of an American President is a courtroom drama of a trial that will never take place, of legal arguments that will not be made, and finally, of a verdict that will also not happen, except perhaps in the court of public opinion, if the writer has his way In his new and first play, Dick Tarlow (with contributing writer and researcher Bill Smith) puts George W. Bush, our 43rd President, on trial for knowingly violating international law: when invading Iraq in the hunt for non-existent weapons of mass destruction; for the unnecessary killing of civilians in an occupation; and for the use of torture.
Directed by Stephen Eich, this fictional trial takes place in the International Criminal Court of the Hague. Because the United States, unlike 124 other countries, is not a party to the ICC, our actions cannot be prosecuted except if called for by the UN Security Council, where the United States has veto power. George W. Bush appears at his trial voluntarily and against the advice of family and friends. In a gray suit, red tie, and blue shirt, Tony Carlin plays an earnest former President who is convinced of his righteousness but not arrogant or prideful, a Bush who listens empathically and with humility to an American mother who has lost her son and to the stories of torture and of the unprovoked massacre of Iraqis by American troops. Brilliant use of video, allowing for footage of the conflict and for individual Iraqis to tell their stories, also humanizes the destruction wrought by decisions made by Bush, in all his rumpled sincerity, with Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney at his side.
The play is documentary in style, grounded in historical evidence, legal argument, and reference to international treaties and conventions. Tall and stately in his black robes with blue trim, Michael Rogers, as the Prosecutor, is imposing. Mahira Kakkar, playing the Narrator, gives the audience context and spells out the larger implications of the American invasion of Iraq: turmoil across the Middle East, the shift of regional power in favor of Iran, the rise of Isis, and the creation of the largest refugee crisis since World War II, one that now threatens European states and the European Union itself.
Although the verdict, left up to the audience, is pretty much a foregone conclusion, it is the detail that is finally so impressive: the playing out of a war that that follows from Bush officials, a number of whom are quoted: “Bomb Iraq…. There aren’t any good targets in Afghanistan,” and “If you don’t violate some human rights, you probably aren’t doing your job.” Or, the White House counsel who ruled that war against terrorism renders obsolete any of the Geneva conventions about questioning enemy prisoners.
From those statements come the falsifications that accompanied the American invasion in the first place and the occupation of Fallujah, with a cutoff of food, water and medical supplies to civilians and painful examples of unprovoked shootings by American troops into schools and homes in striking defiance of military advice to rely upon surgical strikes and not upon an occupation. And there is Bush’s approval of extraordinary rendition and six new interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, often administered with dubious and little evidence. Matters are complicated when the Narrator asks members of the audience if they would violate laws on torture if they thought the information would save their child. “I would,” she says.
Some might say The Trial of an American President is a beautifully dramatized trial and not theater at all. At the play’s end, the viewer will ponder the consequences of our votes as well as the actions of our leaders on the wide canvas they deserve. If those actions inspire fear and pity, as Aristotle recommended in the writing of tragedy, the tragedy here is not the gouged-out eyes of an Oedipus but rather entire regions of the world upturned, lives decimated, and chaos that threatens the world order and has energized forces of intolerance. And the “recognition” Aristotle recommends to the tragedian, is not that of our protagonist, George W. Bush—who, at the end of the play, remains deeply convinced of the rightness of his decisions—but ours.
The Trial of an American President is at the Lion Theater, 412 West 42nd, through Oct. 15.
A Brief History of Beer begins, quite appropriately, by inviting the audience to drink beer. This is not an average toast, however, as the audience is encouraged to really taste the beer—exploring its effervescence, hoppiness, and temperature. Thus begins William Glenn and Trish Parry’s wacky journey through time and space to simultaneously delve into the origins of beer and save it from some unspecified nefarious threat. Despite the plot’s silliness, Glenn and Parry are charming to watch under Jeffrey Mayhew’s direction as they wholeheartedly commit to the ridiculousness of their show.
A Brief History of Beer’s irreverence towards formal plot structure and performance style is made clear from the top of the show. Design-wise, the show leans heavily on a random assortment of projected images and videos, creating effects such as Glenn and Parry’s “spaceship,” lyrics to sing-alongs, and video footage of Glenn and Parry being silly. The performers don Star Trek–inspired outfits, inviting us to join them on their spaceship to explore the history of beer. Glenn and Parry also indicate that some evil forces are threatening the existence of beer, though the identity of those forces remain undefined. They acknowledge this plot inconsistency, establishing an atmosphere of self-referential absurdity. They are also unafraid to acknowledge technical malfunctions (of which there were several), as well as latecomers joining the show at random. Mayhew’s direction allows Glenn and Parry to work the room like comics, and, despite the chaos of this makeshift aesthetic, they manage to pull the whole thing off.
Having enjoyed a two-year run at Under St. Marks, A Brief History of Beer has become an East Village (and Off-Off-Broadway) mainstay. One thing that A Brief History of Beer does extremely well is facilitate audience participation. Many audiences balk at the idea of participatory theater, but by harnessing the jovial qualities of beer, Mayhew, Glenn, and Parry make audience participation fun (and not scary or intimidating in the slightest). This is refreshing in comparison with more confrontational, experimental productions that aim to discomfort the audience rather than welcome them into to the fold. Goofiness is key in the participatory moments of A Brief History of Beer: we are instructed to wave our arms wildly every time Glenn and Parry’s spaceship takes off, intermittently invited to sing drinking songs, and even welcomed on stage to play along in some old school drinking games.
Despite its title, A Brief History of Beer does not contain a great deal of intelligible information on the origin and evolution of beer. The journey begins in Mesopotamia and makes a quick pit stop in medieval Europe; but overall, a coherent historical narrative fails to take shape amid the show’s interactive moments and comic bits. In fact, the more compelling tidbits of trivia are found in the show’s contemporary references. One evolving skit entitled “This Month in Beer” (akin to Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” news parody) hilariously sums up the different beer-related events of the world from the past month. Another charming video sequence follows Glenn and Parry on a real-life past visit to Oktoberfest, where they interacted with various drunkards and, of course, drank a boatload of beer.
In any case, it is best to attend A Brief History of Beer with the goal of meeting a few new drinking buddies (rather than obtaining some deeper understanding of the origins of beer-making). The type of communal drinking that this show encourages is a fantastic alternative to drinking at home or in a regular bar, so if beer-drinking is one of your favorite weekend pastimes, you should definitely give this quirky show a try.
A Brief History of Beer is performed at Under St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place between First Avenue and Avenue A) various Saturdays of the month (except March 2017) at 10:30 p.m. A schedule and tickets ($12) are available online at www.horsetrade.info or by calling (888) 596-1027.
Inside Cirque Du Soleil’s trademark blue-and-yellow big top, a stream of dusty golden light fills the tent, like so many metallic birds flitting above our heads. It seems the perfect setting for this Quebec-based nouveau cirque’s foray into the Victorian age, in a production engagingly titled Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities. Written and directed by Michel Laprise, the show on Randall’s Island retrofits modernity with a captivating, old-age charm. The effect is transportive; the assorted delights of fishlike contortionists, aerialists and a hugely entertaining live band, prove just enough to take the audience on a trip well worth remembering. Despite its current global stature, the company’s performance history in New York been bumpy of late. Its two most recent projects were the lukewarmly received Toruk, at the Barclays Center, and Paramour, a kinetic Broadway musical that inspired derision in some circles. With Kurios, however, creator Michel Laprise has redeemed the reputation of his nouveau cirque and provided a magical spectacle.
The show begins with a harum-scarum inventor, dressed in a white coat and nursing an electrically upright man-bun. He’s called the Seeker (a wondrously bumbling Eligiusz Scoczylas) and has a bevy of strange, fascinating characters following him around, including an accordion-costumed man (Nico Baixas) and a particularly fascinating Mini-Lili (Antanina Satsura, one of the world’s 10 smallest women). On a circular stage, mirrored by a circle of lights above the audience, our characters explore the power of human flight, of human imagination and its associated achievements of the Victorian Age.
Laprise has situated each set interestingly: he begins with a chaotic, drumming introduction to his curious world of mechanical marvels (Victrolas spin around the stage, and strange, beautiful contraptions creak and moan, Willy Wonka style—Stéphane Roy is set and props designer). Warbling, otherworldly music from a fantastic live band (Raphaël Beau is composer and musical director) punctuates this introduction with masterly emotion. Then Laprise starts us off with some light parlor entertainment: Gabriel Beaudoin’s juggling is a particular highlight. But it is in the following scenes that his “makeshift mechanical world” comes to life.
Without giving too much away, we are first treated to some flying performances from a Russian gymnastic duo (Roman and Olena Tereshchenko) and an aerial biker (Anne Weissbecker). A side-splitting comic (Facundo Gimenez) weaves in and out of these performances, providing some surprisingly non-distracting gags for the audience. His Invisible Circus is a special feat of coordinated, focused hilarity. All the while, music wafts deliciously past our ears, a perfect, eerie soundtrack to the mystery and engaging peculiarity of Laprise’s production. When a particularly accomplished Andrii Bondarenko (a hand-balancing artist) almost slips atop his tower of chairs, his apparent misstep is punctuated both by gasps and the live band’s cheeky drummer, whose badam-tshh signals that the slip was all a part of Bondarenko’s routine.
More examples of our Seeker’s mechanical world of flighty misfits present themselves: electric-eel contortionists and heart-stopping balancing acts from a sky-blue-garbed Aviator do not distract from, but rather augment, the pervading sense of weightless possibility in Laprise’s curious world. He posits that his invisible world, full of this endless possibility, exists right beneath the surface of our own world. More radically, he suggests that our own minds are cabinets of curiosities, housing such wonders as dovetailing aerialists, steampunk engines of ingenuity, and the hum of humanity’s greatest discovery: its own capacity for imagination. Rest assured, Cirque lovers: the circus of the sun has finally come to town.
Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios—Cabinet of Curiosities runs through Nov. 29 on Randall’s Island. Tickets (from $54 to $175) and transportation information are available by visiting cirquedusoleil.com/kurios or calling 877-924-7783.
The Birds, Conor McPherson’s creepy new play, is derived neither from Aristophanes nor Alfred Hitchcock. It does, however, share DNA with the 1963 film because both draw from a short story by Daphne du Maurier. (Hitchcock also used du Maurier novels as source material for Jamaica Inn and his Oscar-winning Rebecca.) Don’t expect to find real birds or even simulated ones in the pocket drama at 59E59 Theaters. Fans of the movie won’t find a pompous female ornithologist with environmental concerns or a schoolteacher with her eyes pecked out either.
Rather, McPherson, who has made a name for himself with eerie dramas that occasionally invoke the supernatural—The Weir, Seafarer and Shining City—has produced an apocalyptic vision with only four characters. It’s an end-of-the-world scenario that simultaneously echoes the Bible’s origin story in Genesis.
In a remote house in the United States—Sonoma County isn’t mentioned, nor is Bodega, Calif., where the iconic white schoolhouse in the film resides—a man and a woman have taken refuge following waves of bird attacks. Director Stefan Dzeparoski pulls the audience in close with two long aisles dividing Konstantin Roth’s set into quarters and a small central area that is the main playing space. Marked as House in chalk by Antoinette LaVecchia’s Diane, it is here that she has been nursing Nat (Tony Naumovski) for two days, since they found refuge from the bird attacks. As in the film, there is no explanation of the avian uprising, although the birds seem to arrive and depart with the tides (it’s an annoying and unaddressed question why land birds, like sparrows, robins and crows, would be affected by the tides as seagulls might be—surely they aren’t flying out over the ocean?).
Soon after Nat’s fever breaks, a strange young woman named Julia (Mia Hutchinson-Shaw) arrives. Although Diane and Nat are in their forties, and some warmth inhabits the periphery of their relationship, Julia is in her early twenties and she has been traveling with gangs of thugs but surviving—yet how? McPherson gives Nat a history of what might be mental illness, or at least mental instability; it makes Diane apprehensive. For her part, Diane meticulously chronicles their days in a diary—she’s an author who is estranged from her family. As the trust breaks down in this nuclear “family” the tension builds.
Ien DeNio’s sound design—scratchy radio broadcasts and the flutter and flap of lethal wings outside their shelter—further enhances a sense of isolation and raises the weirdness quotient. Moreover, there’s evidence of an occupant in a house across the lake, although humans are hard to find, and trips outside their shelter have to be timed between bird attacks.
After a reconnaissance mission during which she claims to have gotten lost, Julia shows up with cans of food from a house whose location she claims she can’t remember. But Diane later discovers the cans of food match gifts from the mysterious occupant across the lake, who, in a brief scene with her, brings them to her along with an unusual proposal. (Naumovski doubles as the character, wearing a terrific get-up designed by Kate R. Mincer, with an inverted birdcage for a helmet.)
The chills increase as Julia, the serpent in this macabre Eden, seduces Tony and becomes pregnant—or so she says. The play is a cautionary tale about violating the natural order and about facing the end of the world. Naumovski is excellent as the troubled hero, plagued by growing alcoholism and the demands to lead the threesome; Diane assumes the most rational role and yet at the end she proves ruthless; and Hutchinson-Shaw invests the high-spirited Julia with both immaturity and deceit.
Dzeparoski keeps the atmosphere dark and Kia Rogers’ lighting dim (contrary to points in McPherson’s script when windows are open). That’s effective in increasing the claustrophobia, but the director also tacks on a wordless coda that muddles the ending. McPherson’s finale, with objects chronicling the beginning and the end of the world in a spotlight, is more effective. Still, if you attend without the expectation of screaming, you’ll find this character study fascinating and unsettling.
Conor McPherson’s The Birds plays through Oct. 1 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and at 8:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday (no performances on Sept. 21, 23, 28 and 30). Matinees are at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $20 and may be purchased by calling Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visiting 59e59.org.