Passion Play

Callback is a two person-play with four actors. The script, written by acclaimed film, television, and theater writer Bill Svanoe, follows a budding friendship between a director, Ed, and an actress, Judy, that spans more than 40 years. Because of this timeline, the director has chosen two different casts to play Ed and Judy. The two headlining actors are veterans, while the two in the second cast are younger, up-and-coming performers. The production reviewed here features veteran actors Joan Darling and Greg Mullavey. Darling is the first woman ever nominated for an Emmy in directing, and Greg Mullavey's biography spans both Broadway and television, though his most recognizable credit is his role in the 1970's TV comedy Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Perhaps it is this breadth of experience that generates such realism and conviction in Mullavey's and Darling's performances. They bring the dialogue to life, making it sound as if it is not merely words on a page but true declarations coming from the depths of their own hearts.

Judy and Ed are a clever, quick-witted duo, constantly exchanging snappy one-liners and thoughtful insights into each other's personalities. The first time Judy meets Ed, she bursts into his office shaking with hyper, nervous energy. Before he can greet her, she launches into a rapid-fire explanation of why she is late while frantically grabbing for a script and picking the spilled contents of her purse off the floor. Ed watches her in shock, which eventually fades to amusement when he sees how passionate and honest she is about her love for theater and the profound role she sees herself having in it. Unfortunately, this does not get her the part.

Months, then years go by; the passage of time is shown through period-themed music and a slide show of pictures depicting famous actors, musicians, events, and political figures of the era. Eight years later, Judy is still auditioning for Ed, who, as usual, applauds her talent and deems her perfect for the part, then admits that she probably won't get it because of industry politics. Judy, though heartbroken, never stops trying.

Over the years, Judy and Ed develop a very interesting and durable relationship. As they mature in the business, they both achieve a great amount of success, Judy in directing and Ed in television. But in spite of all they have accomplished, none of it has brought the fulfilling artistic career they have always dreamed of. It is not until they reach middle age that they finally come to terms with the fact that they need to pursue a more stable, less stressful career path.

Callback is a touching and entertaining production that any audience can enjoy, but because of its knowledge and understanding of the theater community, the play will have a deeper meaning to those who work in the field. Many of Svanoe's monologues read like an ode to theater and the dedicated individuals who give everything they have to an industry that almost never gives back.

The play tugs on heartstrings, not by being sad or depressing but by having its characters remain stubbornly optimistic in the face of overwhelming odds. The story does not conclude with a bang but with a sweet, gentle note that brings these two to a new place in their lives where they can still find happiness. So deep is their passion that it takes decades of hardship and rejection for Judy and Ed to leave the theater, but less than a minute of standing in an empty auditorium to make them fall in love with it all over again.

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Tuna Wars

If you're in the audience at Laughing Wild, chances are, at some point you will do just that. It would be nearly impossible, when confronted with the jumble of intensely witty insights and one-liners—and playwright Christopher Durang's overall glorious absurdity—not to find something to laugh at in this 1987 play, as well as something to think about. The Infant of Prague, Sally Jessy Raphael, and an insanely large and metaphorical can of tuna all make appearances in Green Sea Theater's production at Under St. Marks. The considerable problem this production faces is trying to execute the script's ambitiousness. It's not just that the play straddles the line between political commentary and social satire, but that the structure itself—particularly the first two acts—is tough to carry out. Those acts are made up of two long monologues—one by the Woman and one by the Man—called "Laughing Wild" and "Seeking Wild," respectively. They're long enough to be essentially one-man shows, and keeping an audience's attention for such a long time is a complicated responsibility, even for a very strong actor. A performer has to be completely captivating to pull it off.

In the midst of her stream-of-consciousness speech, the Woman explains to the audience how she hit a man over the head after she was unable to ask him to stop blocking a can of tuna at the supermarket. In classic "me generation" form, she then promptly left for the art museum because she needed to be surrounded by culture instead of tuna. Maddalena V. Maresca is clearly a talented actress, but her deft changeability—from one line to another, she's practically a chameleon at times—and earnest attempts to map the ups and downs of a somewhat crazy person's speech aren't enough to make her monologue entirely entertaining.

Oddly enough, although her performance is perhaps more vigorous than Jimmy Smith's as the Man (Smith also directed the play), his more realistic, nervous quirkiness is ultimately more compelling. (It helps that he has some of the funnier lines.) The Man tries to share positive aphorisms from a recent, and ultimately unsuccessful, personality improvement program. Yet he seems increasingly frustrated with his inability to understand the social climate he's living in (and therefore relate to others), particularly the public and political statements about AIDS and homosexuality.

His best lines are zingers that come from his personal musings: "God is silent on the Holocaust, but he involves himself in the Tony Awards? It doesn't seem very likely." His frustration with trying to understand those around him leads him to reveal how he was hit over the head by a woman (the Woman) in the supermarket, an act he says he can't understand. Although many of the ideas presented in the two acts are interesting and momentarily funny, the presentation ends up being a little boring.

In the third act, "Dreaming Wild," the two characters are physically brought together in overlapping dreams, and the act attempts to exorcise their inability to understand each other and communicate. The play does pick up quite a bit at this point. But neither the physical energy, including a supermarket cart fight, nor the great deal of attention given to the lighting and costumes is enough to reverse the first two acts' lackluster outcomes. (One of the Woman's costumes has a wacky 80's motif—an oversized yellow-and-black print top. The Man, when dressed as the Infant of Prague—a Czechoslovakian statue of Jesus—is decked out in a white gown.)

At first, the ambiguity of an unadorned black-box stage makes sense, and the show was probably under-designed intentionally. After all, the setting is undefined and the characters are themselves lost, but giving them a tangible place might have helped to guide the audience's focus.

Yet even without a defined sense of physical place, the time is undeniably the 1980's. The press release declares that the play is a "visceral response to period ideas from Ronald Reagan to Diana Ross." When the Man tries to comprehend the idea that people think God would decide that those who get AIDS will be homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and heroin addicts, we see it as a completely inadequate summation, given the widespread, international decimation the disease has caused.

As for the "culture wars" themselves—of which the Man is in the crossfire—I realized, while watching this play, that I wasn't sure who had won. Although the Man refers to a 1986 Supreme Court decision on homosexuality that was overturned in 2003, the controversy over gay marriage certainly hasn't been settled.

Because the play's time period is still recent, this production offers an unusual opportunity, not so much to see the parallels with today's politics but to understand how we're still living with the political legacy of the 80's.

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View From the Top

Do the people we care about most end up hurting us? Can anyone scrape by with more than a minimum amount of dignity? Should we just stay at home and watch television for the rest of our lives? These difficult questions are addressed in Gotham Stage Company's impeccably produced presentation of Eric Houston's Becoming Adele. This one-woman play tracks six years in Brooklyn-ite and movie junkie Adele Scabaglio's new life in Manhattan. In three rooftop soliloquies, we learn that Adele and her husband, Doogie, moved from her parents' house in the boroughs to a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side. Adele tells us the story of their marriage, which seems to be one of convenience first and love only as an afterthought.

When Doogie is killed in a car accident (with a prostitute in the passenger seat), Adele finds herself responsible for building a life for their daughter. To complicate things, her relationship with her detached father has turned worse, and soon her mousy mother and senile grandmother come to live with her in the city. From there, Adele must face other hardships, like waiting tables at an upscale Manhattan restaurant and finding a man who really loves her for who she is.

The script for Becoming Adele is honest and funny in its best moments, but overwritten and confusing in its worst. This material is soliloquy in the purest sense: Adele is talking her heart out onstage to the audience, which can make for difficulties in the acting. Rather than having another character (even an "invisible" one) present in the scene, the actress playing Adele must sometimes come up with awkward reasons for talking out loud. For instance, before reflecting on the past six years, she says, "Boy, a lot has changed since I was last up here on the roof six years ago."

There is nothing particularly wrong with this format when it is well written, but a lot of the material is heavy with exposition that spells out every last detail. The play's three acts are set in three different time periods, which requires Adele to do a lot of speaking in the past tense. It might be the big day before Adele's new job, but since she's been hired, that victory has already been won. Throughout the play, we never see Adele making any big decisions or taking action—only reflecting on it.

Thankfully, every other element in the production injects vibrancy and life into the script. The choice of transition music, Antje Ellermann's scenic design, and Victor Maog's direction are all flawlessly executed. The music, which one assumes was selected by sound designer Elizabeth Rhodes, includes performers as diverse as the Beatles and the Cranberries, and like the best film soundtracks, it reflects both older and contemporary sensibilities.

Ellermann must have robbed some poor Upper West Sider of his roof, because the roof on which Adele performs is precise down to the minutest details, like an empty aquarium or sporadic little piles of leaves. Finally, Maog's direction allows all of these elements to work together. Adele interacts with the design elements naturally, as when she sits on a dirty old bucket or is yelled at by an offstage neighbor.

Of course Kimberly Stern, as Adele, must ultimately carry the show. Fortunately, she handles the script with earnestness and charm. Perhaps most impressive is her ability to navigate and enliven the long stretches of exposition. She also realistically evokes a handful of supporting characters through very distinct voices and gestures. Stern's genuine performance compels the audience to care about Adele, which ultimately saves the show from its weaknesses.

Adele is told in the play that the secret to life is to "just do what is in front of you" or to "just keep your mouth shut." Eventually she learns that there is a lot more to making the big decisions. Luckily, Stern, Maog, and all the other members of the production team seem to have learned that lesson too. Becoming Adele is an excellent example of a production exceeding its script. Better yet, it does so with a maximum amount of dignity.

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Russian Magic

Ryan Kravetz's set design for Urban Stages's holiday family show, The Magical Forest of Baba Yaga, with scenic art by Alexander Solodukho, is positively beautiful. The playing space is transformed into a green and gold forest, evoked by a canopy of gilded leaves, a molded cliff, giant moss-colored toadstools, and a waterfall of turquoise satin. Reaching up from this landscape are two tall, gold-veined, sadly slouching trees. As we discover in the first lines of this play, those trees used to be Fred and Egon, two little boys from New York City. Their Russian-born mother, Lisa, warned them not to stray into the forest in Central Park or they might be captured by the Baba Yaga, Russian folklore's legendary "witch of the wood." That is exactly what has happened.

In Baba Yaga, Stanton Wood's translation of Eugene Schwartz's early-20th-century Russian play The Two Maples, Lisa (Maria Silverman) ventures into the forest to find her sons. Guided by their voices, Lisa tries to get Baba Yaga to free the children. Matters are complicated by the helpfulness of Lisa's eldest son, Ivan (Aidan Koehler), who both needs his mother and needs to prove his independence and indispensability. The Baba Yaga assigns Lisa some impossible tasks as a condition for her sons' release. Ultimately, Lisa learns that the only power she needs to break the witch's spell is one she already has lots of—love.

This is a great show to bring the family to see, especially if the prospect of seeing yet another adaptation of A Christmas Carol makes you want to shut yourself up in Scrooge's counting house until February. Wood's story is traditional yet innovatively told, and winningly rooted in New York City problems. For example, the Circe-like witch transforms people into the animals they most resemble, so a real estate broker (Ned Massey) becomes a ravenous bear—and continues, in this predicament, to try to tout his hottest Manhattan properties.

Adults will get certain jokes, but the strong plot, Colm Clark's plaintive and whimsical songs, and Russian director Aleksey Burago's breathtaking stagecraft will keep young children involved until the end. The children who saw it with me were delighted and paid attention all the way through. They disagreed over which was the best character—"the witch," "the dog," or "the mother."

The cast is uniformly strong. Silverman sings with a high, strong, and beautiful voice, and shows both Lisa's empathy and her no-nonsense toughness to great effect. The three women who play the boys—Catherine Kjome, Lacey Rainey, and Aidan Koehler—pull off their shape shifting impressively. Egon, Fred, and Ivan act like modern primary-school boys, not idealized Peter Pan figures.

Massey communicates the bear-like and human qualities of his character equally well. Nikki E. Walker's Baba Yaga is a brash, haughty, exhibitionistically wicked sorceress well worth waiting to see. Kjome and Rainey double as the dog and cat, with specific and perfectly appropriate vocabularies of body language. Led by band leader Greg E. Adair, the cast members each play an instrument during the musical numbers—ranging from Massey's guitar to Walker's eerie bowed saw.

For the costumes, Lioudmila Maisouradze deserves kudos. Dressed as giant bees, the backup musicians are well integrated into the picture. The costumes of the speaking animal characters evoke a dog, cat, and bear clearly but are also sumptuous creations of multipatterned fabrics. It is apt that they dress in patchwork. In this Baba Yaga, Burago and Urban Stages have created a patchwork quilt of Old World and New, for young audiences and older ones as well.

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Swan Song

For many Americans, culture begins and ends in America. Though the occasional British play or Italian film might make a wave or two upon our shores, the biggest successes are usually local successes. Even in theater, where cultural exchange is encouraged (as in all arts), unless a show is coming from London's West End, its presence isn't often acknowledged by the public. LaMaMa E.T.C., whose bread and butter is overseas experimental theater, is now presenting Earth in Trance, a show written and directed by avant-garde hell-raiser Gerald Thomas. According to his two-and-a-half-page bio in the show's program, he and his Dry Opera Company are well known in both his native Brazil and Western Europe. He also directed several Beckett plays at LaMaMa in the early 80's.

With the double strike of being foreign and experimental, his is not a name that will jog memories in New York mainstream audiences. It's not likely that Thomas will win any new supporters with this blandly Americanized piece of meaningless atmospherics and political rants.

The scene is an overly fogged dressing room with 70's decor and an even older radio/intercom. (Asthmatics have a few minutes to reach for their rescue inhalers before the show begins.) An opera singer in a loosely tied robe is plagued by an outburst of news and static noises emanating from the old speaker. Then a swan slides its head through a hole in the wall and appears at the side of her vanity mirror.

She overfeeds the swan while delivering banal tirades on the current presidential administration and "salacious" stories about her sex-capades. As she avoids preparing for her entrance (she's essaying Isolde in Tristan & Isolde), she realizes that she is trapped in the room ... and we are trapped with her ... and she is still talking about George Bush and company. Clearly, hell is CNN filtered through the accented ravings of a mad diva.

There is a not-so-surprising "reveal" at the end that attempts to cast this nonsense in a more understandable light. But for a type of theater that's meant to push boundaries, there are many conventional aspects to the show and its staging. Dissonant, electronic-type sounds and bizarre dancing are well-referenced listings in the theatrical dictionary under "things that people hear/do during nervous breakdowns." The swan, which could have been such a beautifully abstract element, is too easily written off as a figment of the woman's imagination—and, indeed, she does psychoanalyze its relevance onstage!

The singer herself, played by longtime Thomas collaborator Fabiana Gugli, is convincing as a diva type and as a woman losing her mind, but not as an opera singer. Perhaps it would be better if she didn't do any singing in the show, as a shallow, unsure voice was revealed. Gugli's character is not given enough personal things to say to evoke any strong empathy; her plan for turning the swan's fattened liver into foie gras makes her a villain until it becomes more obvious that the swan—and its liver—is an illusion.

Listening to this vanilla dialogue makes one wonder what the original Portuguese version had to offer. Was it about Brazilian politics or social issues? Were local aging celebrities name-checked? Part of the enjoyment of experiencing art made by another culture is its insights into that other culture. There are many local shows that cover U.S. current events, but I can't think of one that discusses present-day South America.

And if the point of the repetitively political dialogue in Earth in Trance was that those who don't acknowledge the ills of the world are doomed to be consumed by them, well, Dickens has already written a very traditional and beloved story about that one. It's probably on television right now.

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Dirty Pictures

Do What Now Media and a very resourceful writer-director, Frank Cwiklik, have found a way to resurrect a dreadful C-list movie, and what's more, through their alchemy they have managed to make it infinitely more watchable. The film, and now show, is called The Sinister Urge! and is based on a 1961 Ed Wood movie. A serial killer has been stabbing women in Rutherford Park, and as the bumbling Lieutenant Matt Carson (Bob Brader) investigates the murders, he also tries to bring down an underground pornography racket run by Gloria Henderson (Michelle Schlossberg) and Johnny Ride (Josh Mertz).

Urge is less mystery and more madcap comedy, as the audience knows that the insane Dirk Williams (a riotous Bryan Enk) is the murderer. The play's zaniness comes from the twists and turns that ensue: various red herrings and misunderstandings get in the way of the Rutherford Park police and keep them from doing anything right.

These complications come from the show's secondary characters, including Officer Klein (Kevin Orzechoswki), another dim bulb of a cop); Sergeant Randy Stone (Matthew Gray), Carson's partner, who excels at flirtatious double entendres and little else; Jaffe (Mateo Moreno), Ride's cameraman; and the many women whose innocent acting ambitions have led them down the dangerous path to pornography (the sinister urge of the title).

Urge does not really spring to life until more than halfway through its running time, with a movie-within-a-movie—or, in this case, a movie-within-a-show—chronicling the fall of Mary Smith. The beguiling Melissa Nearman is a wonderful discovery as Mary, a perfect young woman from the heartland who doesn't drink or smoke but, in pursuit of fame, ends up trapped in Gloria and Johnny's lair.

Cwiklik expertly weaves this section into the play, making it a showstopper rather than something extraneous that's been shoehorned into the rest of the piece. Throughout the show, in fact, he and his Do What Now Media colleagues impressively incorporate film and video elements into the live action. The rest of the cast helps him out as well. Schlossberg is great as an acidic femme fatale, and Brader and Mertz, in addition to Enk, seem up for anything. All are masters of physical comedy.

What is perhaps most remarkable is that Cwiklik has assembled his show, performed in the confined spaces of the Red Room in the East Village, on a very limited budget. And yet he found no limitations when it came to communicating his unique, devilish style. I congratulate him and his company of fellow imps. This is one Urge that should not be denied.

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High School Horror Show

It is a testament to Stephen King how easily his sad, horrific novel Carrie, the high school drama about alienation and revenge, lends itself to humor in the Theater Couture's delightful and campy new production, now playing to sold-out audiences at Performance Space 122. Carefully and lovingly adapted by Erik Jackson, Carrie transfers all the big moments to the stage as it retells the familiar tale of Carrie White. A teenage girl full of naïveté—thanks to the hysterical religious devotion of her mother, Margaret—she has always been an outcast in school. But things take a turn for the worse during her senior year, when she gets her period for the first time.

Oblivious to what menstruation is, Carrie very publicly freaks out in front of several of the school's more popular and influential girls: Sue Snell (Marnye Young), ditzy Norma Watson (Keri Meoni), and bad girl Christine Hargensen (Kathy Searle). They proceed to savagely malign her, much to the consternation of Miss Gardner (Danielle Skraastad), a physical education instructor of ambiguous sexual orientation. But unlike the novel and Brian De Palma's 1976 film adaptation, these scenes are now funny, as when we glimpse the silhouettes of the girls showering to Foreigner's song "Hot Blooded."

And, of course, there is the fact that Carrie herself is played by Sherry Vine, aka Keith Levy, a cross-dressing performer who is the co-artistic director of Theater Couture. Clearly, this Carrie is more fun than the dramatic musical that became one of Broadway's biggest flops two decades ago.

Vine gives a delicious turn as Carrie, who discovers that her telekinetic powers allow her emotions to move objects—which, in this production, includes a bong sitting on the principal's desk. Jackson has made one noticeable change in his adaptation: having Sue narrate the plot's events in front of an unseen investigative committee, making Young as much of a lead as Vine is. Both are terrific, though, with an excellent sense of comic timing. Vine has a particularly great time playing the ignorant-victim aspect of Carrie's personality, but Young's efforts should not be overlooked; the enthusiasm she brings to every scene is invaluable.

When Miss Gardner bans Christine from attending the prom, Christine lures her boyfriend Billy Nolan (a terrific Rafi Silver) into planning a brutal act of revenge against Carrie, one with disastrous consequences that Jackson and director Josh Rosenzweig play for laughs. Jackson also added details that the film, the major blueprint for the show, left out, including how Christine and Billy get their hands on the pig's blood and why Sue's boyfriend, Tommy Ross (Matthew Wilkas), agrees to ask Carrie to the prom. Wilkas, in addition to Meoni, Searle, and Skraastad, all make the most of their roles, and it's clear they are having a ball playing them.

Rosenzweig also makes the best possible use of his small stage, which at various times serves as high school locker room, hallway, and auditorium, as well as the bedrooms of Carrie and Sue. He does not display the same economy, however, with the show's running time, which, at almost two hours and 20 minutes, is a half-hour longer than the film. It might be a wise idea to trim a few early scenes and drop an intermission, as the show moves so fluidly that one hardly needs a break from the action.

Of course, Carrie culminates in its famous prom sequence. I was curious to see how Rosenzweig would be able to revive many of the effects, and he has found ingenious ways to do so in minimalist fashion. But I won't give any of them away. Audiences will have to see for themselves.

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If Walls Could Speak

Eighty-five East Fourth Street is a typical early-20th-century East Village building: a brick box with a sprawling set of front steps leading up to a door and a column stack of squarish floors. Inside, the staircases are steep and narrow. One flight of steps, the old marble ones, is worn down in the middle with use, so that they look as if they're melting. The ground-floor lobby is covered with an ornate mosaic of blue-and-white tiles that a real estate agent might call charmingly distressed. Jovially sharing this space are two theaters, the Red Room and the Kraine, as well as the Horse Trade Productions office and the KGB bar.

There is nothing unusual about this place, at least that isn't unusual about the East Village in general. Except for the large number of deadly accidents, murders, and sightings of the paranormal and undead that have taken place on the site since the 1880's.

"Some may call it coincidence," a man sitting behind a music stand intones in Horse Trade and Radiotheatre's co-production of The Haunting of 85 East 4th Street, now playing in the Red Room Theater. "Some may call it the cold hard facts."

In this play, written and directed by Dan Bianchi, Radiotheatre does a remarkable job of exposing both the facts of this site's history and the legends that have risen up around it like so many skyscrapers of whispers.

Radiotheatre has polished up an unusual and effective storytelling technique. Like Orson Welles and company recording their radio horror-show "The War of the Worlds," a quartet of actors (Clyde Baldo, Frank Zilinyi, Karyn Plonsky, and Dan Almekinder), in nondescript clothes, sit behind music stands. Speaking into microphones held close to their faces, they tell us the story of the building, alternating between narration and Ken Burns-style role playing. Sound effects and an occasional puff of sinister, flame-colored smoke from a steam machine illustrate the oral stories.

Some fascinating characters are associated with 85 East Fourth Street. They include its tragic builder—pragmatic, anti-clerical Irish immigrant Frank Conroy; Lucky Luciano crony Gianni "Deep Pockets" Parmigiano; and the bizarre Sullivanian cult. The cast members assume all these roles in a spookily convincing manner and speak confidently in their polyphony of accents and dialects.

Several of the moments that are intended to be frightening are not as scary as they could be. Hearing actors scream isn't viscerally frightening unless the audience gets some sense, themselves, of what frightens the character. One tiny glitch in the generally impressive researching of the piece is the reference to a prowling monster called "Frankenstein." (In Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein is the mad doctor; his creation is a "creature without a name.")

Still, the stories themselves are terrifying, and Radiotheatre's technique of providing voices and sound effects forces the audience to recreate the horror's visual aspects as mental theater.

Much more horrific than any B-movie moment are the true stories of 85 East Fourth that Bianchi has unearthed, such as that of Lazarus, aka Otabenga, an African man who was imprisoned in a New York zoo during the 20th century. Or the cold hard fact that for more than a hundred years, New York City's prison population has been composed overwhelmingly of ethnic minorities, and it changed groups as the demographics of the city changed. In 1918, it was Eastern European Jews. Before that, it was the Irish immigrants who, Bianchi claims, later became the cops and locked up more recent newcomers.

Then there's the Brooklyn Bridge. Buried in its foundations are at least six bodies of workers killed in accidents during its construction—five more bodies than No. 85 has in its walls. Digging into one building's past, Bianchi finds New York haunted most chillingly by the effects of poverty and injustice.

The Haunting of 85 East 4th Street is an innovative piece, crafted out of great love for the city and its history, mixed with bewilderment and outrage at the horrors hidden in our local history. Go see it, and the "permanent occupants" are certain to accompany you out. They like to be remembered, and Radiotheatre gives them their wish.

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It was a gusty New York night, a night for intrigue and murder ... a night for theater. Of all the plays in the world, I had to walk into this one. The press materials for Vermilion Wine describe it as a tribute to the film noir genre, comparing it to classics like The Maltese Falcon. But this nonsensical homage suffers for 90 minutes and then dies without eliciting an ounce of sympathy.

The story goes something like this: It's 1948, and broken-hearted private investigator Ian Sinclair's new case is to track down Mrs. Maureen Monroe's missing (and presumed dead) husband. To complicate matters, a mysterious woman is sending death threats to the sultry socialite, and that anonymous lady might be Sinclair's former lover Rebecca. Sinclair revisits the grimier parts of his past and scrubs the truth out of a dirty situation, where rival P.I.'s, cross-dressing criminals, and a lawman with a grudge are all gunning for him. The show culminates with a four-way Mexican standoff that barely any of the characters survive.

So what did in Vermilion Wine? There are many suspects that could be responsible for this theatrical homicide.

A likely perpetrator is Hunter Tremayne's script, which clumsily skirts the thin line between tribute and satire. Vermilion certainly is a pastiche of film noir elements, like rapid-fire dialogue and stock characters such as a shamus and a femme fatale. But the dialogue is meandering, and its analogies sound more like vocabulary exercises. Irrelevant exchanges like "even a worm can dig too deep," "if you cut a worm in two, you get two worms," and "then I guess you'd have to love me twice as much" are overused to the point of annoyance.

Consistently, Tremayne's language opts for a heavy-handed style over substance. With a little tweaking this might work, yet some portions of the script are totally out of sync with the exaggerated film noir style. A poem written by Sinclair, for example, contains archaic words like "thee" and "thou." Unevenness like this hampers any potential the script might have had. I won't even touch on the ending, except to say that I have never known a noir piece to end with characters in heaven.

Tremayne's direction is also a little fishy. At times the audience is asked to take the play's incongruent world seriously, like the climactic gunfight with plastic guns that are not synchronized with their sound effects. We are supposed to laugh at other moments, as when Sinclair's partner limps around clownishly after being shot. This disparity might have been tolerable, if not for some directorial choices that were downright bizarre. For instance, there are two references to Sinclair being English, even though he is clearly depicted as an American. (Tremayne, who is English, played Sinclair in a previous production.)

Later, Sinclair visits an insane asylum where offstage cast members yell out "crazy talk" that sounds more like a gaggle of gremlins than a ward of disturbed patients. This was obviously intended to add a sense of darkness and danger to the scene, but all it did was make the audience snicker.

The cast members all have strong alibis. Some are required to perform strange material, but all commit fully to their roles. Phil Horton plays the Humphrey Bogart clone Sinclair without shying away from his clichéd character in the slightest. A poor young woman playing a waitress wears, perhaps, the most unflattering costume ever—a skimpy, cigarette-girl outfit that must have been ordered without her measurements on hand—and still makes it work. (The role of the waitress is uncredited, perhaps out of self-defense.) All the ensemble members dig deep into their characters, like a gumshoe trying to crack a case that doesn't have a solution.

With limited resources, technical director Pam Gittlitz creates some effective lighting that evokes the shadowy expressionism of film noir, but several confusing design elements were not vital to the play at all. Even though everyone in the theater could clearly hear when Sinclair dialed a rotary phone, a "dialing" sound effect was used. There are several anachronisms, too. In a story set in the 40's, Sinclair sings along to the Peggy Lee song "Fever," which wouldn't be released until 1958. Overall negligence like this betrays a production team that paid attention to all the wrong details.

In the end, it is sloppiness and inconsistency that undoes this play. The actors do their best, but the material, aside from a few snatches of decent dialogue, is terminally unworkable, even laughable.

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Dancing With Giants

Because not everything I'm about to write about Bread and Puppet Theater and its new show, The Battle of the Terrorists and the Horrorists, is positive, I want to be sure to say upfront that I think you should go see this company during its brief annual visit to Theater for the New City. In fact, I'm recommending that you see it next year and the year after that, and every year that Peter Schumann's health, Bread and Puppet's solvency, and the seemingly inexhaustible supply of local volunteers allow the company to bring its unique brand of theater to New York. Even after more than 40 years, there is simply no other theater group quite like this. In keeping with its street theater and outdoor circus roots, Bread and Puppet welcomed audience members outside Theater for the New City's First Avenue entrance with a brass band led by what appeared to be a Salvation Army Santa Claus. When the band marched inside, the show was about to begin—a more exuberant approach than just blinking the lights in the lobby.

Once the audience members had taken their seats, a master of ceremonies welcomed us and introduced the premise of the show with the aid of illustrated placards. Recent history has been dominated by a war between the Terrorists and the Horrorists. These two groups look different but are suspiciously similar beneath their costumes. They both believe in good and bad, concepts that are "dialectically meaningless." There is a God of Everything and a God of Nothing, both played by the same actor/dancer (Schumann, the company's director). Their witnesses, their victims, and their enablers are the cardboard citizenry, represented by a dozen or so volunteers in white costumes. They hold up cardboard cutouts, implying that "the people" have been rendered two-dimensional by the reductive rhetoric of good and evil. Other allegorical figures are represented by Schumann's trademark giant puppets.

Much of what ensued was clever. Some of it was breathtakingly beautiful. The overall concept, though, was disappointingly schematic and not illuminating. Three white puppets, apparently functioning as Fate-like sisters, turned the wheel of history. A plane was used as a weapon. A war ensued. The cardboard citizenry read about these events in the news and occasionally stomped its feet or danced in circles at the prompting of Schumann's God of Nothing.

Schumann's great talent is that the rough-hewn aesthetic of his puppet designs doesn't keep the puppets from dancing with extraordinary grace, and he himself remains a nimble and compelling performer. His ability to orchestrate these events in a short period of time, using local talent, is also admirable.

Still, for a show that began by attacking the simplistic ideology of both terrorism and the war on terror, the politics of The Battle of the Terrorists and the Horrorists presents a gratingly simple political vision in its own right. It's also worth noting that, while the lack of a program is meant in part to downplay the contribution of any given individual and emphasize the collective nature of Bread and Puppet's communal approach to art, society, and bread-making, no effort at all is made to de-emphasize Schumann's status as auteurist guru. Publicity materials for this production spend over a page detailing his accomplishments, his influences, and his personal history. Everyone else is just a cardboard citizen doing the work and dancing the dance assigned to them by their leader.

Bread and Puppet has been a major presence in agit-prop theater for decades, and much about its agenda and its operation is genuinely exciting. The whole-grain sourdough bread and pungent garlic-laden aioli, given out in a kind of secular communion after the performance, is delicious. Like all entrenched institutions, though, this company should be held accountable for any whiff of hypocrisy in its power dynamics or its politics, lest it become a reflection of the systems it decries.

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A Capitol Idea

America is in a golden age of political satire. All of the stars have aligned to provide stellar opportunities for mockery: a self-serious presidency that's made questionable choices; a free and inquisitive press; and a public that understands that it can object to an administration's course of action without fear of being branded "traitorous." Heeding the call is a unique group of activists called Billionaires for Bush. Like Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, they have taken on the guise of supporters of our current regime in order to highlight its foibles from within. Their performing troupe, the Billionaire Follies, have taken to the stage at the Ace of Clubs to present Dick Cheney's Holiday Spectacular 2006, a skits-and-song revue that provides an early Christmas present to those who like their holiday carols pretty and their sketch comedy silly and dirty.

The show is hosted by Vice President Dick Cheney, with appearances by George W. Bush, Karl Rove, the Ghost of Ken Lay, and Lynne Cheney. The politicos and their billionaire supporters sing traditional melodies with twisted, big business-themed lyrics and play out parodies of A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life. This special is presented as the warped dream of a holiday shopper knocked out in the rush for the season's "it" toy.

However, in a town where faux celebrity-hosted holiday specials are staged yearly, the framework is unnecessary—not to mention dangerous to those audience members near the shopper's front-row seat. (Several times during the show, she scuffles with a security guard and threatens to injure nearby patrons.) While the shopper is supposed to represent the voice of the common citizen, the crowd at a show like this is hip enough to see that the billionaires' message is a bad one. Besides, politicians often hold events to thank their financial contributors; it would be wickedly delightful to think of the gang in the White House putting on a show, Mickey and Judy style, as a gift to their moneyed friends.

Jamie Jackson lends Dick Cheney an air of theatrical malevolence and a fine baritone, and has the presence to carry off the job as M.C. David Bennett wouldn't win any George W. look-alike competitions, but he has the good ol' boy accent, excitable nature, and befuddled looks down pat. Moreover, his natural comic talents allow him to refer to cocaine as "booger sugar" and get a laugh instead of a groan. The cast of ladies is mostly there for sex appeal and high voices; while they fill that job admirably (especially the lovely soprano Kellie Aiken), it would've been nice for the boys' club to cede a little more stage time to the girls.

An hour goes by fast when in the company of entertaining folks like these. The Billionaire Follies has crafted a show with topical references that even the least politically aware Americans will get, and the repetitive nature of the carols drives home their message. If you find the Rankin/Bass animated specials a little too religious, and the Grinch a little too mushy, then Dick Cheney's got a spectacular he'd like to sell you.

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Squaring Off

Subtitled "A Heterosexual Homily," John Patrick Shanley's The Dreamer Examines His Pillow debuted in New York some 20 years before his significantly better-known (and better-written) polemic seared his name into theater history. Doubt, an impassioned examination of child molestation allegations against a Bronx priest, took home a handful of Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize. As in Doubt, Shanley uses a small cast in this earlier work to explore psychological problems. But the resulting personality and ideological clashes, at least as rendered in this tedious production, lack the intensity and urgency of his later effort. As he pushes a cast of three actors through three interconnected scenes, Shanley charts a doleful path in probing the possibilities and trappings of love, sex, and relationships. Mired in his slovenly apartment, the reclusive, brooding, and slightly depressive Tommy (Joe Petcka) alternately talks to himself and to his refrigerator (a somewhat animate object itself, later on) until he is visited by his livid ex-girlfriend Donna (Eleni Tzimas). She immediately begins to berate him—for not taking responsibility for his actions, for not taking ownership of his life, and (certainly not least of which) for sleeping with her younger sister.

Tommy responds by offering up a flimsy remnant of their romance; he initiates physical contact, which she deflects. "Know thyself; then maybe we can talk," she charges, before racing off to seek assistance from her father.

"It's my daughter, come to make me a parent," Dad (David Ditto Tawil) wryly announces upon her return. A moody artist who retired from painting after his wife's death, he speaks candidly with his somewhat estranged daughter about sex and relationships. Donna's fear? That Tommy is a younger incarnation of her father. Desperate to thwart destiny, Donna demands that her father visit Tommy and physically beat him up if he recognizes his own vices in the younger man. She wants to know if he's "curable."

At this point, the implausibility of these events seems largely incurable. But then the characters experience puzzling epiphanies that launch them into even more meandering dialogue. Stagnantly directed by Rusty Owen, the actors frequently square off at one another from opposite sides of the stage, barking across the set with little deviation or motivation.

Moreover, each seems to have uncovered one dominant emotion and fastened onto it. As the caustic Donna, Eleni Tzimas displays a brittle anger with every line. Even the importunate "I miss you; I'm lonely for you" is relatively passionless, lacking shape and commitment. Joe Petcka can't break free of Tommy's despondency, and his overwrought egotism completely usurps his latent charm. Most important, in this production there is no clear indication that Donna and Tommy are still in love with each other, nor is there much reason to think that they should be.

As Donna's itinerant father, David Ditto Tawil turns in the most nuanced performance, but overplays the character's often hazy eccentricity.

Packed with crude language and colorful sexual metaphors, The Dreamer Examines His Pillow is a fascinating, if frustrating, backward glance at a developing playwright's early work. In his 1986 New York Times review, Mel Gussow called the play "an extended, incommunicative conversation in the guise of theater." Unfortunately, this production does little to disrupt that definition, but we can be thankful that, after incessantly batting around words like "love" and "relationship," Shanley's dramatic ramblings eventually led him to write a work of greater theatricality and significance.

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Touched by Tragedy

Two one-act plays featured in a double bill at the Kraine Theater view recent terrorist attacks—the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the March 11, 2004, Madrid train bombings—through the prism of individual lives touched by tragedy. This approach yields rich and complex character studies in the Spanish drama Ana 3/11 and a superficial and poorly crafted play in its American counterpart, A River Apart. In acclaimed Spanish playwright Paloma Pedrero's Ana 3/11, which has been produced in Spain, London, and Cuba and at the 2006 New York International Fringe Festival, three women named Ana await word about the same man, Angel Vera Garcia, who is trapped in the train bombings. His possible death ricochets through their lives, cracking open secrets and prompting searing personal reckonings.

In its examination of the cramped lives of women in a society dominated by men, the play takes its cues from Spanish classical theater works such as Federico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba. To echo that theme, scenic designer David Ogel rings the stage with men's suit jackets hanging on coat hooks.

Ana 3/11, tautly directed by Anjali Vashi and translated by Phyllis Zatlin, consists of three linked vignettes, although all three Anas remain onstage at all times. In the first, Angel's lover (Ana de los Riscos) frantically tries to contact him, pouring out her anxiety, anguish, and frustration into the messages she leaves on his cellphone. In the following vignette, Angel's cellphone rings insistently in his bag, which his wife (Catherine Eaton) has with her as she waits at the hospital. In the final scene, which does not interlock with the prior two and never reaches full climax, Angel's aged and partially senile mother (Charlotte Hampden) recalls her own husband's extramarital affairs even as she has premonitions of her son's death.

While each actress delivers strong performances, Eaton is especially affecting as the strong-willed wife who forces herself to deal directly with the betrayal from which she has long averted her eyes.

In A River Apart, television writer Michelle Schiefen sets out to show how Sept. 11 briefly brought the city's residents together. The play, which has the same director and design team as Ana 3/11, depicts six neighbors, neatly divided by class, race, and age, who congregate on the roof of their Brooklyn apartment building after the second tower is hit but before the towers' fall: the building's super, an all-American corporate guy, a young Jewish woman from Connecticut, a college film student of Iranian descent, a middle-aged white mother, and a 75-year-old Mexican woman.

The personal connection to the attacks is much more tenuous than in Ana 3/11. Nevertheless, everyone frets anxiously about the difficulty of contacting family members because the cellphone circuits are overloaded and the phones in the apartment building aren't working. Demonstrating their instant camaraderie, the six lend each other their cellphones.

This new solicitude and self-involvement are grating in contrast to the indifference that the characters show toward the lives cut short across the river. The one exception is the elderly Rosa (Rhoda Pauley), who says, "Oh God, all the mothers with children up there."

The need for verisimilitude is great when your audience has experienced firsthand the events being dramatized onstage. Yet Schiefen gets the details wrong. The snippets of radio reports—when the super (Matt Alford) periodically unplugs his headphones—don't sound like the charged and agitated live coverage of those first hours. No mention is made of the people jumping to their deaths—an unforgettable element of that interval before the towers collapsed. The burning towers themselves—which you'd think would be a transfixing sight—command very little attention. A family member who was in Midtown that morning is said to have reached and crossed the Brooklyn Bridge in less than an hour.

The six cast members struggle valiantly to bring their characters to life, but this shallow play defeats them.

While the personal focus of each work in 11 is a valid choice, it's disappointing that neither playwright saw the need to grapple with the larger meaning of this new age of terrorism at home. All we get are emotional tirades against the terrorists. Any personal reflections, however raw and provisional, about the causes and consequences of these attacks might have helped place these individual lives—and these plays—into the broader flow of history.

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Women on Strike

It got off to a slowly paced start, but The Happiest Girl in the World crept up on me. A few scenes into this production by the Medicine Show Theater, I was surprised to suddenly find myself charmed. For one thing, the title song, which is reprised more than once, is so melodic, wistful, and poignant in its context that it is still turning in my head—not surprising, since lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg co-wrote a classic song with those same qualities, "Over the Rainbow." In Happiest Girl, Harburg's lyrics accompany music by the 19th-century composer Jacques Offenbach, a pioneer in the development of operetta. The instrumental score is performed mostly by one piano, so there is an emphasis on choral harmony, and the combination of operetta, show-tune camp and wit, and romantic crooning makes for a pleasant and varied musical evening.

Based on Aristophanes's antiwar play Lysistrata, the musical is receiving a rare revival since its premiere in 1961. Director Barbara Vann has combined two existing drafts—the libretto is by Fred Saidy and Henry Mayers—and added some text from the original Lysistrata as well as some of her own.

At the start of the play, Lysistrata (Sarah Engelke), the wife of the Athenian general Kinesias (Samuel Perwin), is weary of the wars that keep taking her husband away. She is enlisted by the goddess of chastity, Diana (Nique Haggerty), to lead the women of Athens in a "no peace no love" campaign in which they refuse to sleep with their husbands until they forsake war. Meanwhile, the women of Sparta, who are the wives of the opposing warriors, are doing the same.

Trouble ensues (this is a musical comedy) when Diana's Uncle Pluto, ruler of the underworld, balks at the notion of a harmonious world, and when Diana's inexperience with love threatens to thwart the plan—and inspires the comedic number "Never Trust a Virgin." Nique Haggerty as Diana is naïve but well meaning, an adorable nymph with a soprano that particularly brings out the classical quality of Offenbach's music.

Engelke has a lovely voice, too—more in a musical theater style. She's an engaging Lysistrata, radiating grace and resolve. As her husband, Samuel Perwin certainly has a beautiful and strong singing voice and the poise of a soldier, but he doesn't match the intelligent demeanor of his wife—although maybe that's the point. When he tells Lysistrata that her lips are "for a lovelier purpose" than speaking her mind, I had to wonder if he had ever met his wife. Mark J. Dempsey as Pluto is a pleasantly understated and thoughtful incarnation of a roguish devil, as opposed to a mean-spirited one. He's calculating instead of evil.

Where the production has trouble is in its tendency toward disorganization and too many choices. While the cast is quite solid, there was much that was unfocused and unclear. Vann's heavily populated stage, which holds bleachers, a marital bed, Greek columns, and a large cast undergoing multiple costume changes, lends the production a Dionysian chaos that, although fun at times, dilutes the story. When the gods are crowded in a pyramid shape on bleachers, it's a good idea but one that brings the action to the back of the stage for too long.

Then, too, Vann can't resist the temptation to overemphasize parallels that were already obvious. When one character says that the Athenians now have a slingshot that will be the end to all weapons, the line is pointed and hilarious. But when the Athenian women change their costumes to modern-day SWAT T-shirts while on the offensive, it seems to beat the parallel over the head.

But I can't dismiss the crowd and chaos altogether, because they do help to express one of the play's more poignant themes—holding on to peace and happiness when dangerous worldly forces threaten to take them away. As the Greek Marines keep marching in to bring him back to war—and away from his wife—Kinesias laments that he and Lysistrata are the only people on earth who need to be "rescued from the Marines."

Though there is a fair amount of bawdiness to the production, at its heart this is a story about trying to find a peaceful, safe corner of the world, a place to share your life with your loved ones.

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In the Spirit

Manhattan Children's Theater's second play of its 2006-2007 season, Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, will come as a welcome surprise for anyone who has heard the classic tale a hundred times and is not looking forward to it again. Adaptor and director Bruce Merrill gives us a nicely abridged version that packs the story's central themes and favorite lines into a quick-paced, hourlong, family-friendly interpretation. The result is a production that Christmas Carol enthusiasts and parents can enjoy while exposing their children to Dickens's complex language. Of course, a young audience cannot be expected to follow every word of the 19th-century English dialogue, and so the MCT artistic team has pooled its members' talents to turn the story into an engaging sensory experience.

Lance Harkins's stage design depicts a dark, shadowy world with an all-black color scheme that extends from the back wall to the curtains, and an abstract picture of a moonlit city skyline that runs along the sides of the stage. The set, when combined with Shane Mongar's dark lighting, instantly takes us into Scrooge's head. We see the world as he does, before the supernatural intervention occurs.

Once the spirits enter to transport the grumpy old man to the long-lost days of his youth, this heaviness is lifted. The first two ghosts appear onstage wearing long silk gowns with thick ropes tied around their waists, joyfully twisting, spinning, and skipping to illustrate happier times. When Scrooge is a nice young man dancing at the Fezziwigs' Christmas party, bright lights accompany the upbeat, toe-tapping instrumental numbers. But as we watch Scrooge grow distant and eventually lose his humanity, the music slows and the lights dim, returning us to the darkness from which we started.

Merrill's adaptation does not focus solely on Scrooge's life; it also pulls back to examine the effects his actions have on the world around him. The actor playing Scrooge, Aaron Rustebakke, is cast as both the embittered old man and a silly narrator, and he's too busy alternating roles to fully lose himself in the character's details. Instead, he acts as an effective device for moving the story along, highlighting the necessary plot points and providing expository descriptions of past events and supporting characters.

The story's emotional core and central themes are embodied in Eric V. Hachikian's original music score and Lauren Gordon's choreographed modern dances. For example, when the Ghost of Christmas Future appears in a cloud of smoke to lead Scrooge to his doom, the dancing ceases and the playful instrumentals stop. They are replaced with the frantic pounding of a deep, ominous note, while a harsh spotlight casts frightening shadows beneath the eyes of the ensemble characters rejoicing over the death of Scrooge.

Because of the darker elements and emotions explored in the story, this production seems best suited to an older age group. Manhattan Children's Theater specifies in its listings that it is most appropriate for children ages 5 and up.

Unlike other versions of A Christmas Carol, this one does not contain carols, songs, or festive holiday decorations. In fact, most of the laughter is provided through Andrea Steiner's props, especially a ridiculously large turkey with its legs sticking straight up in the air, and a miniature Tiny Tim doll that the Cratchit family delights in passing around like a football. This adaptation may not be the complex Victorian morality tale that audiences are used to seeing, but it succeeds in delivering all the sadness and joy we hope to feel when reading this timeless story.

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Poor Soldier

Georg Büchner's Woyzeck, required reading for students of Western theater, is widely considered a precursor of both expressionism and Bertolt Brecht's epic drama. A dark and difficult play, it is frequently produced and almost as frequently disappointing in production. Having sat through far too many ambitious but tedious performances of the play, I am pleased to report that the Gate Theater London production, now playing at St. Ann's Warehouse, is highly entertaining, appropriately disturbing, exuberantly theatrical, and occasionally brilliant. Woyzeck's plot is episodic and elliptical, following the titular protagonist (Edward Hogg)—a soldier who must submit to medical experiments in order to provide (barely) enough food for his girlfriend and baby—through a series of indignities and his eventual descent into violence and despair. The play was discovered after Büchner's premature death in 1837 in an apparently unfinished state. The surviving text is a series of separate scenes that were left unnumbered, meaning it is the job of any director to determine the order in which they will be presented. While there is some dark humor inherent in the text, the overall atmosphere is relentlessly dark, and productions often suffer from a one-note gloominess.

Daniel Kramer has certainly not fallen into that trap in adapting and directing his own version of the play. For its first half, this production almost felt like Büchner as filtered through Monty Python and Benny Hill. Woyzeck rode a child's tricycle around the stage while Elvis sang over the theater's sound system. The sexual innuendo was played up in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge manner that initially belied the seriousness of both the issues being explored and Woyzeck's deteriorating mental state. Kramer filtered the text's carnivalesque surrealism through this lighthearted sensibility for perhaps a little too long.

Then, just as the production's self-aware cleverness was starting to grate on me, Kramer pulled the rug out from under the audience by indicting us for our enjoyment. In one of the production's centerpiece scenes, the Drum Major (David Harewood) beat Woyzeck senseless while preening and flirting with the audience. Harewood's winning smile and athletic presence allowed him to charm the audience despite the abhorrent nature of his actions. As the audience laughed and applauded the Drum Major, Woyzeck lay groaning on the ground. In a rebuke to our applause, he moaned, "Yay, violence." The moment brought another laugh, but it was also a recognition of our own culpability in the virulent brand of masculinity that led the Drum Major to batter his victim.

While the production's humor didn't disappear altogether after that, the tone shifted considerably. Fewer moments were played for laughs, and the violence was increasingly alarming. This tonal shift was achieved entirely through pacing and line delivery, while the show's visual and sonic aesthetic remained consistent. David Howe's exquisite lighting, often filtered through an onstage mist, worked to enhance Kramer's painterly staging. The production's visual beauty was juxtaposed with a soundtrack made up mostly of Elvis, Dolly Parton, and Beethoven as well as occasional sound effects that rendered individual moments alternately cartoonish and haunting. A number of moments were so gorgeously staged, they lingered in my memory as works of art unto themselves.

The performances were excellent throughout. Hogg's fragile, tormented Woyzeck and Hare's gleefully sadistic Drum Major were particularly memorable, but Roger Evans, Fred Pearson, Tony Guilfoyle, and Diana Payne-Myers also deserve mention as Andres, Captain, Doctor, and Grandmother, respectively.

Along with its virtuosity and occasional excesses, the production takes pains to underscore the text's thematic concerns. Exchanges of money are highlighted, the poverty and social standing of soldiers decried, and the highly destructive conflation of masculinity with violence is explored from a variety of angles.

This Woyzeck is not intended to be a "definitive" production, but as a provocative take on a canonical yet, paradoxically, unfinished text. As Kramer has noted, "The profundity of this play lies in its ruins." His singular excavation of these "ruins" is one of the season's most memorable evenings of theater.

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Teacher Tested

Growing up is never easy. Many a show has documented the complicated emotions endured by teens, addressing such subjects as their topsy-turvy love lives, peer pressure, and unstable home situations. Playwright Dominique Cieri draws from her real-life experiences to provide a harrowing portrait of seven teenage girls' lives in Count Down, produced by Double Play Connections at the Bank Street Theater. "I wanna be a different girl, born on a different day" is the show's big tag line, and one of the first lines uttered by Carmela (Sandi Carroll). She has been hired to lead a 40-day arts program for abused and neglected teens, and the show focuses on the seven students to whom she is assigned. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds and suffer from various afflictions. (According to publicity materials, Carmela's experiences stem from Cieri's 15 years as a teaching artist with at-risk youth.)

As one might expect, none of her students embraces Carmela with open arms at first. She encourages them to express themselves through confessional free-writing exercises, a conceit that allows the audience to see into their minds but never feels gimmicky.

Of course, Carmela's task is not exactly easy; just when she thinks she has made real progress, her students rebel again, causing her to second-guess her ability to reach these girls as they work together to perform a show by the end of the 40 days, to which the title refers. This kind of one-step-forward, two-steps-back cycle dominates much of Count Down's first act and even the beginning of the second, but it never feels redundant. Instead, it helps Cieri root the play in reality and addresses the fact that inner-city children's imaginations get stunted early on. After Carmela loses her students' trust, she must continue re-earning it. Cieri and director Elyse Knight handle these highs and lows with a deft hand.

Carmela also faces the occasional skirmish with Hobbs (Major Dodge), who is in charge of the program. He is a less-developed character, and as Carmela and the girls begin to really gel as a group, he turns out to be even more cryptic. Has he somehow taken advantage of his position? Are his intentions less than kind, or is Cieri aiming for something more surreal? This muddles the final moments of the play, which at two hours and 15 minutes is already packed with the characters' troubles and doesn't deserve any hint of melodrama.

It's Knight's well-rehearsed ensemble that makes Count Down such a worthwhile experience. As Carmela, Carroll strikes the perfect balance of optimism, intimidation, and despair. She called to mind a few teachers I had in public school. Kasey Lockwood and Reina Cedeno stand out as Miriam and Neema, two students who, despite their problems, let Carmela open up their minds before she can do so with the others. Valerie Blazek enters the cast later than her colleagues, but packs a mean punch as Amber, one of the most troubled students in Carmela's care. Megan Ferguson, Adepero Oduye, Dania Ramos, and Victoria L. Turner round out the cast with their acute, sensitive performances.

All do Cieri's important subject matter justice. Her self-proclaimed aim is to shine a light on domestic violence, and to demonstrate the role of art and artists in helping girls recover from such abuse. Everyone at the Bank Street Theater can consider that mission accomplished.

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Urban Angst and Auld Lang Syne

After an acclaimed stint at Ars Nova last winter, the band GrooveLily hits New York again with its sensational seasonal offering Striking 12, a contemporary retelling of "The Little Match Girl" set to a bewitching score and performed by three multitalented performers. This year, they have set up shop in the cavernous Daryl Roth Theater, but Ted Sperling's inspired and careful direction has both preserved and enhanced the magic and intimacy of this little-show-that-could. In truth, it would be a herculean task to dim the lights on any of these three actor-musicians. On electric violin, Valerie Vigoda is vivacious and captivating as she portrays the Match Girl and her contemporary alter ego—an eccentric woman hawking strings of light bulbs on New Year's Eve. And behind the keyboard, her husband and collaborator, Brendan Milburn, is still lovably cranky as the grumpy guy who refuses to go out and celebrate with his friends.

Gene Lewin, the third band member and drummer extraordinaire, fills out the show in a variety of smaller roles, and his performance has grown and deepened over the year. Dryly sarcastic and refreshingly witty, Lewin seems even more comfortable as the backbone—and beat—of Striking 12. (He also still gets his trademark tour de force number, "Give the Drummer Some," where he steals the spotlight to show off his formidable percussive prowess.)

The rest of the score is virtually intact, with a few minor changes that include the addition of the soulful "Red and Green (And I'm Feeling Blue)," the rhapsodic "Wonderful," and the air-tight harmonies of "Picture This." The new music blends seamlessly into the rest of the material, which reflects GrooveLily's signature palette of pop, rock, folk, jazz, and blues. This is a group that refuses to be pigeonholed, and its members continue to create an unmistakable, boundless sound that is all their own.

Together with designers David Korins (set), Jennifer Caprio (costumes), Michael Gilliam (lighting), and Robert J. Killenberger (sound), Sperling has nestled Striking 12 comfortably into this larger space. If the costumes are more stylish (and coordinated) and the wacky props look less spontaneously scrounged up, Gilliam's dynamic lighting has only heightened the dramatic tension. Most notably, he throws Vigoda's shadow against the back wall to create a haunting effect during her aggressive and athletic performance of the powerful "Can't Go Home." Gilliam has also subdivided the enormous back wall into panels of color and light, which constantly shift to reveal a matrix of small sparkly orbs, adding dimension while pivoting with the story.

Even with such impressive production values, the strength of Striking 12 still lies in the remarkable synergy of musicianship, acting, and attitude created by Vigoda, Milburn, and Lewin. Vigoda and Milburn co-wrote the show with Tony Award-winner Rachel Sheinkin, and although this story doesn't attempt to move mountains, it does aspire to reach the heart with its exploration of urban isolation and its detrimental effects. Without being preachy, the performers unearth cheer from malaise—a freshly modern holiday message.

Vigoda and Milburn received the 2006 Jonathan Larson Award for their musical theater writing, and Striking 12 continues to advance Larson's intrepid, renegade spirit. They're already at work on a new concert-musical, Wheelhouse, about their experiences in a used RV, and one can only hope they will continue to explore, reinvent, and electrify the genre for years and New Years to come.

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Different Slant

The Slant Theater Project, created in 2004 to produce challenging new work in site-specific venues, continues to test itself with The Obstruction Plays, six new works by some of New York's most exciting playwrights. Although the results are mixed, the experiment proves once again that interesting work is going on at the Slant. "Obstructions" are intended to force artists to come up with new and creative ways to solve problems. Well-known obstruction exercises include Lars Von Triers's film The Five Obstructions, in which he challenged director Jorgen Leth to remake parts of his film The Perfect Human in five different ways, each time adhering to a certain rule or limitation.

At the Slant, 30 obstructions (five for each of the six plays) were created—some might say sanctified—by playwrights Lee Blessing, Naomi Izuka, and Sarah Ruhl, and each play had to conform to the obstructions assigned to it. Obstructions range from the benign (the play must have a waffle iron) to the more challenging (there must be a character who speaks entirely in verse). The best obstructions are those that move beyond adding a character or a prop and get to structural problems. Such obstacles force the writers to come up with new and inventive ways of creating drama.

The Dinner Party, written by Dan O'Brien, is ostensibly about dinner with the playwright's family, but the overwrought narrator, who introduces himself as Dan O'Brien, continually interrupts, circumventing the drama and ultimately undermining the performance. Though the piece is funny at first, the trajectory is well established early on—the play must not go on—and by the end the performance has begun to seem stagnant.

Priest in a Pool, a short, abstruse piece by Michele Lowe, explores a moment of truth between a teenaged camper and a priest who attempts to convince the boy to jump into an empty pool, in what appears to be a variation on a trust fall. The premise here is strong, but the characters' motivations become confusing at the bewildering climax.

Caution: Parents May Be Less Insane Than They Appear, by Lisa Kron, satirizes an older couple's apprehensions about technology. When their children visit, they find all the furniture in the house has been moved for fear of upsetting an electronic vacuum. The siblings then discover that their glib disregard for their parents' concerns may not be justified. This funny piece turns dark quickly, but the ending lacks some of the terror it might have mustered.

I See London, I See France is a comic piece written and directed by Evan Cabnet. The premise here, which I won't give away, especially because of the play's brevity, is highly entertaining. The obstruction requires that part of the play must be about Donald Rumsfeld. The representation is, to say the least, unflattering.

Blossoming Andromache, written by Marcus Gardley, takes a sensitive look at an encounter between a young man named Spooky and a drunken derelict. The vagrant is bribed by Spooky's friends into pretending he is the boy's father after the real father fails to show up for a long-awaited reunion. The play starts off slowly and is overly poetic, but the characterizations are superb and the dialogue is highly unexpected.

Unlimited, by Mat Smart, incorporates a large cast of 15 actors. The play consists of very little narrative, especially at first, when it tends to drag. The ending, however, picks up considerably and includes a beautifully orchestrated moving sculpture created out of the actors' bodies.

The Obstruction Plays contains, in total, a cast of more than 20 actors, with standout performances by Robert Karma Robertson, David Carl, Arlando Smith, and Therese Barbato. The performance is a sort of ultimate drama-nerd event. Instead of going to see a "normal" show that's about looking for an answer to a dramatic question, we go to see the questions themselves, and the kinds of problems they raise when given time onstage.

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It Can't Happen Here

For writers on the political left, the midterm elections have delivered a mixed blessing. The results may have signaled the waning days of the Bush administration, but they have also created a crisis in source material. Bush has provided an endless wealth of subject matter for works like David Hare's Stuff Happens and Saturday Night Live sketches. For those looking for one more nostalgic exercise in Bush bashing, A.R. Gurney's Post Mortem, a problematic but overall funny farce about the future of American politics, may fit the bill. Gurney's new play explores a Christian dystopia in the not too distant future. In this America, all citizens are required to carry a copy of the Bible, most offices are routinely bugged, and theater classes analyze evangelical comedy. In this political atmosphere, Alice (Tina Benko), a renegade lecturer in the theater department of a backwater Christian university, attempts to thwart the academic and sexual advances of one of her undergraduates, an industrious but not too bright English major named Dexter (Christopher Kromer).

Dexter has recently discovered the "lost" plays of one A.R. Gurney, a "minor dramatist" of the 20th century. He is particularly struck by one of Gurney's plays titled—you guessed it—Post Mortem, a work so profound it has the power to put an end to the theocratic dictatorship as well as solve longstanding social problems ranging from health care to public transportation. But first Dexter has to convince Alice to help him, and to love him.

Like Gurney's recent works O Jerusalem and Screen Play, Post Mortem is receiving its world premiere at the Flea Theater. All three plays are overtly leftist, and both Post Mortem and Screen Play look toward a future where Christian fascism has taken over America. The plays shy away from naturalism to display a sort of self-referential postmodernism where they contemplate their own theatricality.

At one point in Post Mortem, Dexter asks Alice (one may assume he is asking the audience as well), "Are you ready for a recognition scene, Alice? I recognize now I'm a loser." Most of the play's irony comes from its references to the "discovered" play of the same name and the "fate" of the author, A.R. Gurney, who may or may not have been killed by Dick Cheney. While this kind of wink-and-nod trickery is entertaining at first, it becomes overplayed, especially in the second act, where the explanation of a Kennedy-like assassination conspiracy and its subsequent cover-up is painstakingly detailed.

Though the farcical first act is engaging and humorous in its crowd-pleasing and liberal in-jokes and self-irony, the second act presents other major problems. It begins with a tedious lecture on the evils of cellphones (especially in the theater), which may allude to one of the playwright's personal bugbears, perhaps more than he intended.

The spiel is delivered by Betsy (Shannon Burkett), who serves as a kind of interlocutor/hostess for Dexter and Alice in the talk-show format that makes up the second act. This kind of sermonizing illustrates the act's flaws, as the satire on talk shows attempts to create a new dramatic arc. Instead, with the characters talking about what happened in the years between the first and second acts, any dramatic action is circumvented, and what results is characters talking about what they did, which is as unexciting as it sounds.

As Alice, Benko plays the farce at full tilt: she is an overwrought academic desperately looking for the tools to use against an oppressive society. At times, however, the seemingly English accent that she affects can be distracting. Burkett, as the annoying Betsy, is spunky and earnest. As Dexter, Kromer is the least farcical character, playing the eager newcomer somewhat too lightly in comparison with the other characters.

Though this production of Post Mortem is not perfect, credit must be given to Gurney and especially to the Flea. Beginning with Anne Nelson's The Guys (about firefighters lost on Sept. 11), it has demonstrated that it is one of the city's few theater companies to continually challenge and question the consequences of living in a post-9/11 America.

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