Capra-esque

For many of us, watching It's a Wonderful Life is like slipping into a favorite pair of flannel pajamas

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Pulling Strings

Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol has been staged in a variety of different ways: childishly funny, humbly poignant, brightly extravagant, and maddeningly musical, to name just a few. The Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater has broken the mold here, shedding a refreshingly original light on this tired tale through a bilingual puppet show called A Christmas Carol, Oy! Hanukkah, Merry Kwanzaa, Happy Ramadan, playing at the Jan Hus Playhouse. Vit Horejs, puppet master and founder of the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater, has performed all over the world, finally emigrating from his native Prague to Manhattan, where, he says, his weary puppets are looking for a home. Jan Hus Playhouse is the perfect place for them to rest their strings; the intimate little theater is located in the heart of a multi-cultural, predominantly Czech neighborhood between First and Second Avenues. Though the play is told in English, the melodies are sung in Czech, Hebrew, and Swahili. Horejs asks you to imagine that this story is being told to you "not by an English serial novelist but by your Czech grandmother."

Imagining this is difficult, given the sarcastic, wry sense of humor Horejs injects into his story with a precision you sense only he could perfect. His Scrooge is not the grimacing, evil man in need of a change that other shows portray him as, which is just as well, considering this comical little Scrooge puppet is too cute to be visually menacing. In this version he is more of a modern-day Seinfeld; sarcastic and self-assured, not given to common niceties or social graces. His transformation here seems to be less about a conflicted man overcoming his wicked ways than a jaded New Yorker unlocking his inner tourist.

Horejs uses the adorable, colorful puppets to spellbind the children while shocking the adults with jokes aimed way over the little ones' heads. At a Christmas party, a bearded puppet becomes so drunk that he literally falls off the stage. Another uses his strings to flirt with a female, grinding his wooden body against hers before dragging her off to watch dirty videos behind the curtain. The best jokes were those that played to all ages, most notably one where Bob Cratchit passionately throws his wife onto the kitchen table to make out next to their pathetic excuse for a Christmas goose. The children in the audience squealed, "Eeew, kissing," while their parents chuckled at the other implications.

The Cratchit Christmas scene, usually aimed at giving the audience a somber look at an impoverished family making the best of their meager surroundings, garners the biggest laughs in Horejs's retelling. The younger children are obnoxious, the eldest daughter plays embarrassingly juvenile jokes, a kitten picks inopportune moments to mew its thoughts, and Mrs. Cratchit goes on a rant that would make a sailor blush when describing their "benefactor" Scrooge. Tiny Tim, of course, declares it the best Christmas he's ever had before hobbling off on his crutches.

Needless to say, Christmas Carol, Oy! Hanukkah, Merry Kwanzaa, Happy Ramadan is not your typical Christmas show, but those planning to attend a Czechoslovakian puppet show with bilingual holiday songs are most likely expecting something different. Aside from Horejs's unconventional take on the plot, he infuses into the mix a bilingual soundtrack of holiday songs and icons from other religious celebrations

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Exposed

Through a Naked Lens is a fictionalized account of the unrequited gay-love story involving Herbert Howe, an acerbic Hollywood journalist, and Ramon Novarro, a Mexican immigrant who became a successful Hollywood leading man in the waning days of silent film. Herbert, whose gossip columns and brutally honest expos

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Strung-Out Knockout

"They haven't built a mental institution that can hold me," Christopher John Campion declares, standing atop a series of stepped blocks upstage, like an Olympic marathon runner receiving the gold medal. Campion's defiant, drug-riddled words reverberate off the walls of the Paradise Theater on East Fourth Street. Suddenly, you realize that the walls aren't padded for soundproofing. Escape From Bellevue and Other Stories takes us into the infamous hospital's psychiatric ward as it follows Campion, the front man for the New York-based band Knockout Drops, through an autobiographical odyssey of drug abuse, rock 'n' roll, and rehabilitation. The play alternates between selections from Knockout Drops' latest album and an off-the-cuff recounting of the highs and lows of Campion's personal battle to get sober.

His life story is familiar to anyone who has seen an episode of VH1's Behind the Music. There is an unwritten and tragic rite of passage for many in the music industry, one that takes an artist to the brink of self-destruction, and Campion is no exception. The difference is that he has courageously decided to relate his story onstage. In four years, Campion managed to land himself in Bellevue three times, and he also became the first person since 1963 to escape.

His presentation skips among the more interesting anecdotes, with Campion playing himself and effectively evoking all the other characters. We learn of his drug problems as he recreates a trip to North Carolina, where, after a wedding, he finds himself in a men's room doing cocaine with a rodeo clown. The fallout from being caught by his girlfriend leads Campion deeper into addiction, alcoholism, and eventually homelessness.

After he announces he will kill himself, Campion's friends have him forcibly taken to Bellevue to detox for the first time. A struggle with the orderlies leads to a Thorazine injection, which leaves him incapacitated. When he awakens, he describes a cuckoo's nest of inmates and counselors worthy of the institution's reputation. After a few days of detox, Campion is released, only to begin the same vicious cycle again.

The second time he finds himself in Bellevue, Campion behaves himself to avoid the Thorazine, and through a happenstance of mistaken identity, he performs his career-marking escape. Though free from Bellevue, Campion remains a prisoner of his own demons until an intervention from his estranged brother sends him to Bellevue for a final time.

Director Horton Foote Jr. deserves a lot of credit for the piece's breakneck momentum. The incorporation of videographer Chris Cassidy's video interludes, which are sometimes more relevant to Campion's sense of humor than his story, adds a stimulating variety to the proceedings. Light designer Harry Rosenblum creates an interesting combination of lighting suitable for both concerts and a dreary institution like Bellevue, using very little equipment.

But the real star of the show is the music of Knockout Drops, which consists of Tom Licameli, guitar/vocals; Phil Mastrangelo, bass/vocals; Vinny Cimino, drums; Paul Giannini, percussion; and Campion, lead vocals. Standout numbers include "Vicious Freaks," a power anthem to burnouts and rejects everywhere, and "Wrong Turn," a quieter meditation on the cyclical nature of recovery and relapse.

It is fitting that Campion attires himself in a striped jacket, which is more appropriate for Barnum & Bailey than a rock concert: he is an able ringleader for this multimedia circus. With charisma and whimsy, he endears and distances himself in relation to the audience, capturing the mystique of an underground rocker without bypassing the heart of his story.

Escape From Bellevue will appeal to more audiences than those it puts off. Those already familiar with Knockout Drops will be pleasantly surprised to find added meaning in the music through Campion's self-deprecating monologues. Theater buffs will discover an ingeniously effective approach, which gives the work an edge lacking in most modern musicals.

Bellevue might not have been able to hold Christopher John Campion, but the Paradise Theater is a suitable lodging for his charisma, his music, and his story of redemption.

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The Winter's Tale

How does one critique a children's show? Should the reviewer attempt to look at things from a child's perspective? (Adults often underestimate the intelligence of youth.) Should the reviewer bring a young person along? (Kids aren't always easy to come by, and don't necessarily make the best company at evening shows.) Or should the critic try to keep an open mind, gauging the reactions of those nearby while ultimately feeling certain that a good production is easily spotted, no matter what its intended age group? Urban Stages is presenting holiday fare in the form of a modern, multi-culti version of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen. Adapted (or, really, mostly rewritten) by Stanton Wood, the story still centers on best friends Kay and Gerda. But instead of being neighbors playing in a rose garden in a European ghetto, they are neighbors engaging in playful rap battles in a New York City ghetto.

Kay's parents fight a lot, which makes him sad and angry, and vulnerable to a magical glass shard that falls out of the sky and into his eye. The shard makes him see only the negative side of things, so, frustrated because Gerda doesn't understand his pain, he runs away with the equally troubled Snow Queen. When Gerda notices that Kay is missing, she starts a long southward journey to find him. Along the way, she meets a mischievous, anthropomorphic river; a samba-dancing beach goddess; a robber maiden; and a reindeer, all of whom help her reach the Snow Queen's domicile at the South Pole.

The costumes are colorful, the puppets are inventive, and the actors are competent enough, so why did this production seem lacking? The original story was a quirky tale about a little girl's quiet faith in a Christian God, which gives her the power to cross the globe to find her best friend. Wood's version replaces this faith with a vague notion about the power of love; strange, then, that this show doesn't have much heart. The bits of story and character kept from Andersen's tale don't mesh with the new parts, and there was no consistency of tone. It came across like a puzzle completed with two different sets of pieces.

And yet, the highlight of the evening (based on audience reaction) was a new scene about Gerda bumping into the Giant Squid in the Lake. Designer Eric Wright has crafted an endearingly goofy, mobile squid puppet, which puppeteer/actor Ned Massey endows with a crusty, lovably offbeat personality. Adults and children laughed at this surprising character, which didn't perform in that kids' theater declamatory style, and certainly didn't try to teach tolerance or any other message. Granted, this encounter was supposed to be a bit of comic relief to break up an otherwise earnest evening, but why does "earnest" have to exclude "fun"?

At $30 per ticket, this is certainly a wallet-friendlier alternative to the traditional "Radio City Christmas Spectacular"

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'Tis the Season

Midtown is brimming with tourists. The tree is lit, the Rockettes are kicking, and your wallet is empty. Ah, Christmas in New York City. But this time of year not only ushers in a wave of doe-eyed sightseers eager to see the famous Rockefeller Center spruce. It also brings new theatrical productions, each dedicated to this most celebrated of seasons. With so many shows to choose from, deciding what to see is as daunting a task as navigating along Fifth Avenue. Search no more. If you are going to see one show during the holidays, let it be A Broken Christmas Carol, produced by the Broken Watch Theater Company at the Michael Weller Theater. It is a perfectly updated take on that classic Christmas tale: Ebenezer Scrooge is an evil CEO, the Cratchit family has entered a reality-TV contest to win money for Tiny Tim's leg surgery, and two Jewish kids look for the season's meaning at the mall. A Broken Christmas Carol gives the audience a shot of Christmas spirit spiked with 21st-century cynicism and irreverence.

The play is actually the combination of three separate stories written by playwrights James Christy, J. Holtham, and Kendra Levin and seamlessly woven together into one unified tale. "Yet to Come," by Holtham, is the story of a lapsed homeboy, Shawn (Keith Arthur Bolden), who is forced to remember the life he left behind when he is visited by the ghost of his friend DeWayne (William Jackson Harper).

Like Scrooge and Marley, Shawn and DeWayne were once friends and business partners. DeWayne died on a Christmas Eve years earlier when the two were on a drug run. Bolden, as the withdrawn Shawn, and Harper, as the loudmouth, wisecracking DeWayne (it is hard not to compare him to Chris Rock), play off each other with ease. As a result, hidden underneath the barrage of politically incorrect jokes

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Telling Tall Tales

It is just minutes before Walking in Memphis: The Life of a Southern Jew is fixin' to start, and Jonathan Adam Ross, the show's creator, writer, and only performer, is out in the audience schmoozing with the crowd. If you didn't know him, you'd think he was just another spectator in his casual but fitted white T-shirt and jeans. In a transition as smooth as silk, Ross is standing before us introducing his show and thanking us for coming out on this cold, wintry New York evening. And then his story begins. At no time do you feel as if you are watching a performance or a stand-up routine. Instead, it as if you are gathered around a living room listening to stories about being Jewish in the South, much in the same way that Ross describes his family sitting around his dining room table sharing stories about his deceased mother.

Storytelling has been a longstanding tradition of both Southerners and Jews. One can imagine two elderly Georgians in rocking chairs on a stoop on a sweltering summer day, shooting the breeze about days gone by. Similarly, Judaism's history contains loads of unwritten tales passed down orally through the generations. Ross alludes to these traditions, particularly to the practice of telling stories several times over, enhancing and improving upon them each time. Indeed, both cultures are guilty of this sort of exaggeration for effect. It is what makes the stories themselves so endearing.

Ross portrays a host of characters, some Jewish, some not; some Southern, some not. Most notable are his father, known for his disregard for consonants; his non-Jewish neighbor Jim Griggs, who collected yarmulkes (prayer skullcaps) as a hobby; and his buddy E.Y., named so because his family uses letters for names, and by the time he was born, "all the good ones were taken."

But the standout character is Ross's brain-damaged sister, Julie. With precision and utmost respect and love, Ross portrays her silly antics (such as believing as a teenager that when her brother "got her nose," she might never get it back) as both humorous and deeply saddening.

You don't have to be Jewish or from the South to enjoy the show, but it helps. References to Waffle House, that ubiquitous, Southern late-night dining establishment Ross describes as "a dirty, redneck IHOP," got chortles from the Southerners in the audience, but flew over the heads of others. Similarly, the notion that "Adon Olam," the prayer that ends most Jewish services, is the Jewish "Hi Ho" (from Disney's Snow White) made waves in this mostly Jewish audience, but might have eluded those who weren't Jewish. Still, you don't have to be Jewish to find yourself cackling uncontrollably during Ross's hilarious renditions of Broadway musicals sung in Hebrew at the Jewish summer camp where he serves as drama director.

The camp is the same setting where Ross's narrative takes a more serious tone. His description of the impact he has made on a young jock-turned-performer, coming from the very proud father, is a poignant portrait of acceptance. Ross turns somber at other points as well, particularly in his stories about his mother's struggle with, and death from, breast cancer, which was added to the show several years into its run and just five weeks after her death.

Echoing the show's varying tones, Ross played portions from the titular Marc Cohn song on a piano in the corner. Following a burst of laughter at the end of a story, Ross's playing tended to be fast and energetic. Between more sorrowful bits, his playing was more melodic and graceful. (The aptness of this song, of course, lies in the lyrics: "And she said, 'Tell me, are you a Christian child?' / And I said, 'Ma'am, I am tonight,' " a reference to Cohn's being Jewish.)

In this delightful production, Ross places himself in the league of talented storytellers like Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg. One audience member, who is familiar with most of Ross's stories, having heard them throughout their friendship, told me it seemed that he was "always acting," even during one-on-one story sharing, because of his theatrical nature. I suggested that perhaps it was the other way around, that Ross was not "acting" during conversations but instead was "having a conversation" while acting onstage.

In either case, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't enjoy hearing these stories. Director Chantal Pavageaux notes in the program, "It's a superhuman feat to recreate the past, enliven the dead, recall the tiniest nuances of someone's voice, their face, the idiosyncrasies that made them unique." Perhaps Ross is indeed Superman

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Good Grief

They say comic strips are a four-color funhouse mirror of reality. With Peanuts, Charles Schulz used four panels to reflect on universal childhood traumas. In Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, playwright Bert V. Royal returns the favor by holding up a mirror to Schulz's creation and giving the Peanuts kids teenage problems. His play finds the high school-aged CB lamenting the loss of his beloved beagle, who has been put down after falling victim to rabies. It seems the entire gang here has mutated into rabid versions of themselves. Matt, who grew up under a perpetual dust cloud, is now a violent germaphobe who will not tolerate being referred to by his childhood moniker, Pigpen. Tricia (Peppermint Patty) and Marcy are Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie types, though Marcy still calls Tricia "sir" every once in a while. CB's sister continues her search for identity, as a Wiccan; Van has turned to marijuana and Buddhism after being robbed of his blanket; and Van's sister is locked away in a mental institution for pyromania, and it doesn't look as if any number of 5-cent therapy sessions will provide her a way out. Finally, Beethoven finds himself the object of the ridicule and social misunderstanding that so often come with being a musical prodigy.

The subtlety of Trip Cullman's direction keeps these characters from being pigeonholed as mere stereotypes and effectively lets us discover each of their Peanuts counterparts, with a few hints from Jenny Mannis's Gap-inspired costuming. Issues of sexuality, substance abuse and self-discovery, common to adolescence, are deftly made more profound by our familiarity with these characters.

Off-Broadway could hardly hope for a cast better suited to depict the teenage experience. Eddie Kay Thomas endows his CB with the same frustrations, albeit more sexual than football related, that endeared his illustrated counterpart to generations of readers. America Ferrera, as CB's sister, gives a touching salute to the plight of younger siblings everywhere. As Van, Keith Nobbs engagingly captures the need for meaning beyond materialism. Though Matt's need for cleanliness and his homophobia may seem a little forced at first, Ian Somerhalder skillfully uses his character's obsession to drive the play's darker scenes.

Likewise, Logan Marshall-Green's sexually confused Beethoven provides an empathic center for the play. As Tricia, Kelli Garner vibrantly channels Anna Nicole Smith with a hint of Peppermint Patty without falling into caricature. Marcy remains a bespectacled, multifaceted enigma in the hands of Ari Graynor, and she is equally at home recounting the history of the spork and free-styling hip-hop beats. Van's committed sister appears in only three scenes, and Eliza Dushku doesn't waste them. She revels in the unpredictability of her character and avoids becoming a "you love to hate her" clich

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Religious Phallusy

The art of making people laugh at what they would otherwise find offensive is, at bottom, a balancing act. On the one side, you have mean-spiritedness; on the other, impishness. Veer too far into the former, and you end up in the off-putting mire of misanthropy; too far into the latter, and you're left with the empty satisfaction of the prankster (or the forced smile of the pranked). As it stands, look not for a mischievous twinkle in the dead eyes of Thomas Bradshaw's Prophet, the bad joke now playing downstairs at PS 122: the pointless toxicity of the religious, gender, and racial stereotypes on display sinks the thing deep into the mephitic muck.

At light's rise, a middle-aged suburbanite named Alex (Peter McCabe) plants himself center stage, announces that his habitual kowtowing to his wife has made him unworthy of his penis, strangles her to death, then takes off to the ghetto in search of an unschooled, easily dominated "negress" as a replacement, but not before he is commanded by a cartoonish God to re-subjugate women, on pain of eternal damnation.

What follows is a hodgepodge of action and consequence: Alex begins his ministry, with his new wife Shaniqua (Detra Payne) as the proving ground; the ministry falls apart as the wives form a frothing mob bent on mass castration; and inevitably, several characters go to their goofy-voiced maker.

I would say the piece is offensive, but that would imply that it elicits some kind of excitement

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After the Riot

Producing a historical piece has its advantages and its disadvantages. The work has elements of a plot already created, and it often has a readymade audience. It also has a tendency to be weighed down by the facts, with the event itself often ill suited to the mechanics of theatrical presentation. Some of the advantages are apparent in the Alchemy Theater Company's fictionalized historical piece Haymarket, but nearly all of the disadvantages are present as well. The play is loosely based on events surrounding the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in the late 1800's, when anarchists and socialists squared off with police during a march in support of the eight-hour workday. In the confusion of the confrontation, an unknown instigator detonated a bomb, killing several policemen. Police then opened fire, and several workers were killed. In the aftermath, four anarchist leaders were hanged, among them Albert Parsons (Dennis McNitt), who, along with his family, is fictionalized here.

In the first scene, we are introduced to his daughter, Lucy. Her mother, also named Lucy (both are played by Squeaky Moore), has put her in an insane asylum because the events of her father's past haunt her

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Sex and Politics

In Kirk Wood Bromley's three new one-acts, Three Dollar Bill, produced by Inverse Theater, the ideological tensions between gay values and conservative values tango in a tangled dialectic. Bromley's verse plays sound like linguistic Chinese finger traps: the more the characters attempt to reason out of their self-contradictions, the further they tend to be trapped by their own dubious assumptions. The first, and least successful, play, "What Are You Thinking, Mary Cheney?," is essentially a one-woman monologue in which the vice president's lesbian daughter tries to justify her existence. Skewered by the likes of the Moral Majority on the right for her sexual preferences, she is equally lambasted by the left for betraying the ACLU, Lambda, and others who try to defend her lifestyle choices.

We meet Mary in her idyllic "log cabin" in the woods�as if in a kind of demented Mister Rogers' neighborhood�where she greets us, reads us "fan" letters, and smashes cellphones when she gets calls from the irate public. While the premise is promising, the result comes off as a screed of self-justifying self-hatred. Director Howard Thoresen utilizes a wide array of blocking

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Cruel and Unusual Pleasures

As soon as the curtains part in the Red Bull Theater's production of The Revenger's Tragedy, the audience is hurled headlong into an atmosphere of theatrical extravagance: a dance macabre at the Duke's court morphs from a stylized tableaux set to opera music into a lascivious discoth

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Seasonal Pairing

Blame the extra time off. Nostalgia invariably arrives on the heels of Christmas, bringing with it the inevitable (and perhaps involuntary) tendency toward introspection. The New York Theater Experiment offers its own meditation on this annual hyper-self-awareness in a pair of short plays: Thornton Wilder's quiet gem The Long Christmas Dinner, a faithful snapshot of classic Americana, and A New York Christmas Carol, a quirky, modern take on a timeless British classic. Although the combination of two divergent scripts has the potential to create a fresh take on these two pieces, the coupling unfortunately offers little by way of enlightenment. Varying wildly in subject matter as well as production value, the two halves seem to have little in common other than their subject matter

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Our Daily Bread

Man cannot live by bread alone. He also needs puppets. If there is any doubt about that fact, the inimitable Bread and Puppet Theater dispels it with its current two-part offering, The National Circus and Passion of the Correct Moment. Lured in like kids to a candy store, the audience is delighted with The National Circus's opening scene with a white-bearded man on huge stilts. That is Bread and Puppet founder Peter Schumann, outfitted as Uncle Sam. He ambles in to "When the Saints Go Marching In," played with much verve by a little bouncing band. This isn't a nationalist pep rally, however.

As the weight of patchouli hangs in the air, a rumpled group of mostly college-age students enters the bare-bones stage at Theater for the New City. Their liberal earnestness is palpable

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Paradise Now

One always seems to exist in the worst age in human history. Whether you wish to have been a milkmaid in a quiet Italian village or just a bumbling caveman in pelts, contemporary life is clouded by romanticized views of a "simpler" time, a better time. Parisian writer and director Pascal Rambert, however, posits the opposite in his current work, Paradis (Unfolding Time). What if we are living in paradise right now? Or, in his own words, "what you're now watching you will someday remember as a marvelous world, while today you think it's hell because paradise was what came before." As part of the five-month Act French festival, which brings new theater from France to New York, Paradis poses grandiose, existential questions in its four-night stint at the Dance Theater Workshop.

Eleven actors enter the wide, black stage wearing winter coats, jeans, boots. They slowly remove all of their clothes and stand naked before the audience. (The reverse Edenic gesture is one nod throughout the evening to images of paradise.) Upstage, a flag of yellow, green, and pink waves tirelessly for the duration of the show. The actors unfurl a large, yellow mat and place it center stage. This motif is the first of three, which follow as green and then pink.

This "yellow" scene is splashed with other colors—blue swivel chairs, multicolor blankets, black and silver microphones that dangle from the ceiling. The stage is lighted with fluorescent lights both above the stage and upstage, facing the audience. The naked bunch dart about the space, scattering like lost children in search of their mother. One beautiful woman stands on tiptoes to speak into a mike. A succession of rapid-fire questions begins in French-tinged English, "How do you begin? Do you begin like that? What do you think we want?"

Paradis is enervatingly frenetic and endearingly French. Few traces of American "comic relief" are found in this heavyhearted piece. "Why are we so alone?" is asked more than once. The second segment, noted by a green mat placed center stage, carries the weight of the work. Two small projection screens flank the mat—one of famous paintings of nude women, the other a video of an escalator with random riders. This postmodern work (or is it "late"-modern now?) pays homage to France's best existential thinkers from the theater wings: Sartre, Artaud, Lecoq.

Kate Moran stands out as the only American actress and as one of the central "characters" in the ensemble. It is she who has her heart literally torn out during the green scene. There is much tumbling and various headstands. Some movements are done in sync, but there is little in the way of overt choreography.

Rambert wants to make a terribly beautiful statement, and to some level he succeeds. Still, feeling the loss of paradise—or confronting the possibility that we are blind to a utopia within our grasp—should seem more harrowing and less clinical. The sparse, cloying text is interwoven with movement, and words are passed from actor to actor like a hot potato.

The final, pink scene begins with a few statements, one of which is "You are the product. It's scary. You will see." Even more questions are posed toward the end: "Do you love me? Could you? Would you? Why did you expel me from the center?" Rambert's text alludes to Darwin and Copernicus as those whose findings have pushed human beings out of the center of the universe to the fringe. He adds that genetic engineering is the next step in removing us farther from the coveted middle. As fringe theater, Paradis seems to have found its proper place in the theater universe.

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Destinations

The year is 1889, and a trio of intrepid Victorian female explorers stands poised on the brink of tomorrow. As these "sister sojourners" peer over the lip of the void, they are assaulted by the unknown

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Match Point

Watch your back, Sweeney Todd. The band GrooveLily has come to town, proving that you don't need to do a big-budget Broadway show to tell a captivating story and showcase the formidable gifts of multitalented performers. Tucked into the cozy venue Ars Nova, GrooveLily strikes gold with its inspired "rewired version" of Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Little Match Girl." Funky and fresh, playful and serene, Striking 12 is a very welcome gift to New York this holiday season. Simultaneously acting, singing, and accompanying themselves on instruments, the performers in this season's Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd have been celebrated for both their dexterity and their innovation. The instruments become more than mere appendages, as the actors use them as storytelling tools, creating a performance that connects the music with the performer in exciting new ways.

The members of GrooveLily

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Children Will Listen

The sterling Off-Broadway theater group the Axis Company has created a wonderful new holiday tradition with the fourth annual production of its winter show, Seven in One Blow, or the Brave Little Kid. This spirited children's play with music will have parents in the audience singing along as well. Seven tells the story of an urchin (Abigail Savage) who completes the herculean task of swatting seven flies at once. The Kid, as this hero is known, travels around town as a local celebrity, even sporting a belt buckle advertising the impressive feat. In a classic misunderstanding, everyone who encounters the Kid thinks the belt is referring to major acts of derring-do. Assuming that the Kid has killed seven people, they all try to make this new toughie do even more difficult tasks.

It is the lively cast of Seven that gives this sweet show its heart. The Kid meets up with a cornucopia of stock fairy-tale characters: the Scarlet Pimpernel (Brian Barnhart), an Ogre (Jim Sterling), a Princess (Margo Passalaqua), a Witch (Sue Ann Molinell), a Pea (the charming Laurie Kilmartin), even the month of December (Edgar Oliver).

All are remarkable performers, able to command the stage while charming both young and old audience members. Passalaqua, for one, demonstrates some impressive acrobatic dance moves, while Barnhart performs a rich, moving number that comes late in the show. And Molinell makes for quite a scary witch.

Director Randy Sharp's skills are just as impressive as the cast's. Not only is he a master at fluid pacing and making sure all of the cast members get equally prominent blocking, but he is also responsible for all the original songs. The show itself was written as a team effort by the Axis Company, and it is a clear representation of their synergy. This is an ensemble effort in every sense, and Axis's members seem to care as much about their young audiences as they do about each other. They never once talk down to their audience or appear bored or unhappy in roles that, in other performers' hands, could have come across as forced or trivial.

There are many morals to be found here for young people. The Ogre, for example, learns that you don't always have to brag about your physical prowess. The Princess realizes she should not judge a book by its cover and make fun of someone she doesn't know, since, for all she knows, they may have much in common.

Seven may be on the trite side, but it's always sweet and never saccharine. It is also very professionally done, thanks to its many top-notch technical effects, including David Zeffren's lighting design, Steve Fontaine's sound effects (as when the Kid kills the seven flies), and Valerie Hallier's artwork, which brings a veritable winter wonderland to life. Sharp also utilizes some video clips and cues to facilitate audience participation. One could presume that this show's purpose is to enthrall children, but the effect was the same for the parents on whose laps they were seated.

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Sounds of Silence

"When I was about 8, I saw the moon as it really is," writes expert mime Bill Bowers. As a youth, he would regularly twirl across grassy Montana fields while staring up at the night sky, never realizing that the glowing moon he looked fondly upon had a concealed dark side. His one-man mime show, Under a Montana Moon, playing at the newly renovated Performance Factory, is inspired by the day he took a closer look. In reverence to the visible half of the moon Bowers admired as a child, he maintains a light, happy note throughout the play's first act. His opening skits are silly, with delightful elements of slapstick humor. There are the usual mime gags: walking into walls and getting trapped in a box, though Bowers puts his own spin on the movements by performing them in a cow suit, which is best utilized in his impression of a "milkshake."

Once these crowd-pleasing skits are out of the way, he moves into uncharted waters, recreating a showdown on the Western frontier and a day spent at the county fair, where he plays games and rides coasters. The fair scenes are funny as a narrative but fascinating when you consider there is nothing on this stage other than a man and his suitcase of props. Bowers's movements are so convincing that when he wanders through what we presume is a dark carnival maze and bangs smack into walls, the audience yelps "Ouch!," feeling his pain.

Though this show is centered on mime, there is sound. In the beginning of Act II, Bowers lip-syncs to voice-overs when re-enacting teachings from a Mexican peace movement that came to North America by way of sacred clowns called Contraries. Bowers acts as a Contrarie in his piece The Way of Sweet Medicine when he passes these messages along to us through voice-overs, props, and his own graceful, controlled movements.

In the first teaching he uses menacing hand puppets to portray a man with two wolves fighting inside of him. One wolf is kind and loving; the other is angry and violent. "Which wolf will win?" a child asks in voice-over. "The one I feed," a man's voice responds.

The Way of Sweet Medicine indicates a shift in tone from where Act 1 left us, laughing at a silly cow and Bowers's carnival antics. The moon is darkening, and so is Bowers. In a deeply powerful scene, Prayer for a Boy, he re-enacts the circumstances of Matthew Shepard's heartbreaking death, told through voice-over testimony by the boy who found him.

This piece does not examine the violence or the psychology of those involved, but rather the sounds that came out of the tragedy. "They say we cannot call a sound back," says a monotonous child's voice on the soundtrack. "A sound goes on and on." To illustrate this point, the voice asks us to imagine the sound we think Shepard made when he was beaten and, more distressingly, the sound his mother made when she heard what had happened.

In Act II's final scene, Palette, we see Bowers stepping through a painting into a field alive with cricket noises reminiscent of his beloved Montana field. When he smiles at the moon and proceeds to twirl in dizzying circles, we sense he has come back to the light. The story is nicely framed by his return to the fields, where he now recognizes and embraces both sides of the moon.

One would expect a mime show to rely solely on visuals, given the nature of the craft. But Under a Montana Moon has deeper, richer elements in its stories, which contain important coming-of-age lessons and relevant social commentaries. It is also touching to acknowledge that, although Bowers has studied under the famous mime Marcel Marceau, taught at several colleges, and graced both the silver screen and Broadway stage, he has chosen to focus his one-man show not on these impressive accomplishments but on the Montana moon he grew up admiring. This production is a combination of his heart, mind, and body, and though he never speaks a word, you hear his message loud and clear.

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Holiday Treat

Only a Scrooge would not be infected with the spirit of Christmas after seeing the delightful musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol that Personal Space Theatrics is presenting for a fourth season. Dickens's hoary tale of crippled Tiny Tim and the old miser who learns the true value of Christmas may appear to cry out for parody or some other form of radical reinvention. But in his beautifully crafted, faithful rendition of the classic, director Stephen Wargo demonstrates the value of close attention to the original story and its emotional nuances.

Wargo keeps the action moving at a sprightly clip through dramatic vignettes spliced with rousing song-and-dance sequences and snatches of narration told by the 23-member company in Greek chorus fashion. The actors spread out through the two aisles and a midpoint landing in the audience section (part of an extended stage), allowing for more inventive choreography, by Ann Robideaux, in the relatively confined space.

Leading the topnotch cast, which includes three able child actors, is Robert Ian Mackenzie, whose bushy eyebrows and craggy features make him the perfect embodiment of Ebenezer Scrooge even before the first "Humbug!" bursts from his lips.

Nicholas Alexiy Moran as Bob Cratchit and Michael Poignand as Fred infuse their leaner roles with warm humanity. Also worthy of special mention are Michael Salonia and Kathleen Hinders as the roguish Mr. Fezziwig, under whom Scrooge apprenticed as a young man, and his saucy wife.

The spare set by David Esler consists of tall lantern posts that serve double duty as coat racks, garlands draped on the walls, a large slab of black construction board, and 10 large black cubes. Bringing it all to life is the work of lighting designer Timothy Swiss and sound designer Chris Rummel, who both work in bold strokes.

Costume designer Jessa-Raye Court does yeoman's work outfitting the large cast in period costumes (at a low budget). But it is in her depiction of the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future that she gets to flex her creative muscle. For two of the spirits, she uses gold paper masks, which give them an appropriately otherworldly cast.

A good example of the able teamwork of the production's designers is Marley's Ghost, who is dimly lit by a green spotlight and whose frayed finery gives off puffs of dust as he moves.

Expertly arranged by Dianne Adams McDowell, the musical sequences are embedded so organically in the drama that the transitions in and out of song are virtually invisible. Matt Vinson, the musical director, provides spirited accompaniment on piano.

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol opens and closes with a medley of Christmas carols and hymns, both traditional and obscure. The full company belts out these tunes in a manner as resonant and uplifting as any church choir's.

You'll leave the theater in high spirits, humming under your breath and thinking better of the world than it probably deserves for the rest of your day or night.

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