This Magic is Tragic

Phare Play Productions’ The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, is painful to sit through. Disastrous nearly throughout, it’s the worst production I saw in 2007. The best I can say about it is that, for the most part, the actors remembered their lines. Yet, they often spoke them rotely, as if struggling to recall them, or, as in the case of two drunken characters, Stephano and Trinculo, delivered them in such an over the top vaudevillian manner that the result resembled badly done Abbott and Costello. Joan Darling stars as Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan who, usurped by his brother, Antonio, with the support of Alonso, King of Naples, was cast out to sea with his young daughter, Miranda, some 12 years earlier. Fortunately, Gonzalo, Prospero’s counselor, had seen to it that their rickety boat was fortified and stocked with provisions and Prospero’s magic books. When Prospero, aided by Ariel (gratingly played by Kerry Shear), a spirit in his servitude, divines that Antonio and his other enemies are sailing in a ship near his island, he creates a storm to run them aground and mete out vengeance. The actors did an admirable job making the sparse set approximate a chaotically rocking vessel. Everything went downhill from there.

The program that was handed out consists mostly of actor bios and never explains what the director, Blake Bradford, had in mind when he devised this ill-fated all-female production. And I couldn’t tell, either. It could have been a provocative idea if it signified something. After all, The Tempest, a romance/comedy, is Shakespeare’s most male-focused play. The only female character among more than 20 of them, major or minor, is the 15-year old Miranda, who has lived with her sorcerer-father on the island for most of her life. Yet, the opportunity to comment on Shakespeare’s intentions, the period, or the casting by way of a feminist approach is wholly squandered; most of the characters play their lines straight and strive mightily to be men in both their appearance and actions.

When Ms. Darling first appeared, attempting majesty, silhouetted, in a cape and with her staff flung out in triumph, I was invaded by images of my local librarian under the influence of psychedelics. Darling, an Emmy-award winning sitcom director, cannot command the role of Prospero and comes across as someone who would much rather invite you in for milk and cookies. Nor can the many other actors command their roles, either, with the exceptions of Beth Adler, focused and stern as a conspiring Sebastian, Kim Carlson (Antonio), and Kymm Zuckert who plays a convincing if hammy Caliban, Prospero's grotesque island slave.

The actors’ costumes, shoddy suits from the turn of the century, would have worked in The Little Tramp but lent little grandeur, or even irony, to characters who are supposed to be heads of state. Though the sound system was good, sound effects could have been more generous. Thunder was used far too sparingly; it could have added a real sense of necessity to a scene where Trinculo is compelled by the elements to seek shelter under the not so appealing blanket of Caliban.

Granted, The Tempest is among the most difficult of Shakespeare’s plays to stage, but this effort resembled community theater at its laziest. Steer clear of this production. Even better, steer clear of Christopher Street on the evenings it’s presented, lest Prospero divine that you are nearby and suck you into the audience against your will.

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Best Friends Forever

I can’t recall the last time a thirty minute piece received the kind hype that Jen & Angie has. Jen and Angie were recently featured in a big story on Pagesix.com, and they’re not even real. Let me explain. Jen & Angie is the latest long-form sketch by the renowned comedy and improv troupe Upright Citizens Brigade. UCB has launched or shaped the careers of several well-known comedians, including Saturday Night Live veterans Horatio Sanz and Amy Poehler. The place is crawling with talented and hard-working comics whose greatest dream is that Lorne Michaels will show up in the audience and pluck them from obscurity. At its theater on the northern edge of Chelsea, UCB showcases an often dizzying array of nightly offerings, presented on a schedule almost military in nature. It’s not uncommon to see a long line of patrons standing in the frigid cold on West 26th Street at 9:00 p.m., patiently waiting for those inside to vacate the 7:30 show. This scenario repeats itself throughout the night. If you have to wait on line, Jen & Angie will be worth it.

The sketch goes like this. Somehow, Brad Pitt (played by a mannequin), Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston find themselves on the same ill-fated airline flight to Antigua. After losing an engine, the plane goes down on a deserted island. Miraculously, there are three completely intact survivors - guess who they are.

Because Brad remains in a persistent vegetative state due to the spell under which Angelina has placed him (and because he’s a mannequin), it all comes down to Jen and Angie, mano a mano. Christina Casa is hilarious as a Morticia-like Jolie and Sara Chase has nailed Aniston’s mannerisms and sugary sweetheart qualities. Jen sings the Friends song, replete with claps, when things become too much for her. Angie, for her part, is oblivious to the festering hatred that Aniston harbors for her.

Together, they are forced to hunt the island’s wildlife for survival. The island becomes the perfect vehicle to send up Jolie’s purportedly exotic lifestyle, and Ms. Casa squeezes out lots of laughs with her aloof and clueless affectations. When a hungry but squeamish Aniston asks a feasting Jolie how a marmot tastes, Angie replies, “It is great. It tastes like condor.” Angie never misses an opportunity to taunt Jen with her motherhood. Because of her endless quest to adopt the planet’s children, Angie can’t even remember the name of her biological child, referring to it as “the white one.”

Obviously, co-writers Casa and Laura Buchholz follow the tabloids. But, you don’t have to be up on the latest Hollywood gossip to enjoy Jen & Angie. If you go, the sketch will be teamed up with another UCB show to provide a good ninety minutes of laughs. The night I went, it was paired with Seven Fights, an entertaining collection of skits by Will Hines and the animated Matthew DeCoster, whose physical brand of ridiculous comedy reminds one of Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer.

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Mommie Dearest

Young Christine, we are informed by her mother, is in tears backstage, paralyzed at the thought of performing in her first ever one-woman show. Her mother, admittedly stalling for time, berates her Filipino-American daughter for having become spoiled by American culture, and entertains the audience with stories of Christine’s childhood. She pauses to check on Christine and we hear her, behind the curtain, reprimanding her daughter for her fragility. In the ironically titled, I Am Nothing Like My Mother, Christine Corpuz, who appears to be only in her mid-twenties, has credibly transformed herself, with little more than a pair of bifocals, a red blazer, a skirt, and a thick Filipino accent, into her own mother.

Her mother’s repeated references to Christine’s nervousness soon ring tediously modest because Christine always eventually emerges, composed and without a hint of distress, from behind the curtain.

Ms. Corpuz deftly transforms herself into a variety of characters who proceed to tell their stories, some poignant, others comic. Some she pulls off; others don’t work, despite valiant attempts. For example, her portrayal of a down-on-his-luck man begging for change at a pay phone is too much of a stretch—she just can’t conjure up a masculine voice. And she is simply too voluptuous to play Chloe, a schoolgirl, dressed in leotards and a Mickey Mouse sweat shirt, struggling to understand her parents’ deteriorating marriage. The cutesy voice and outfit come off, unintentionally, as more creepy than moving.

Fortunately, though, most of Ms. Corpuz’s characters work, particularly her portrayal of a vulnerable twenty-something drunk-dialing her ex-boyfriend only to find out that he has become engaged to someone else. As “Miss California,” Corpuz is asked to deliver a message to today’s college students. She unleashes a blistering political and social tirade that one only wishes a real “Miss California” could muster the courage to rant. The range of emotions this gifted young actress can summon is formidable.

Ms. Corpuz wrote the entire show and her writing skills are promising. I Am Nothing Like My Mother is essentially a showcase for Corpuz, constructed to demonstrate her fierce talents. Forget the fact that we really have no idea who some of the characters are or how they relate to her mother’s affectionate diatribes about Christine. It’s almost as if Ms. Corpuz has assembled all the characters she has portrayed, or perhaps even practiced, in her brief acting career and woven a very loose basket within which to present them. She sometimes repeats the same part in a different voice—docile in this one, aggressive in the next.

Is Ms. Corpuz demonstrating her remarkable range or cobbling material together? Sometimes it’s difficult to tell. And, while the audience hears much of what Ms. Corpuz’s mother thinks of her daughter, I would have loved to hear more of Ms. Corpuz’s views on her mother and culture.

Despite these quirks, however, once I accepted that this is a dramatic variety show rather than a necessarily coherent tale, Ms. Corpuz became a delight to watch, with unmistakable talent. See this show to become acquainted with a fine new actress. Get to know Ms. Corpuz (and her mom) now, since I have no doubt we will see her gracing New York stages for years to come.

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Brief Beauties

There is a tremendous fusion of talent in this New York Theater Workshop offering of Beckett Shorts. The production, which features four one-act plays by Samuel Beckett (two of which are completely silent), sprouted from a 2006 workshop under the direction of Joanne Aklaitis, and features refined staging and acting. But it is the subtle and inspired choices in set, lighting, sound, video and costume design that transform it into a feast for the senses. Whether, in the made-for television short "Eh Joe," watching split-second thoughts register in the soulful eyes and facial tics of Mikhail Baryshnikov (as Joe) in a video close-up projected onto the curtain (behind which he is visible sitting listlessly on his bed), or listening to the gorgeous voice of actress Karen Kandel, as she narrates Joe’s interior monologue in alternately caressing and accusatory tones, the effect is powerful and minute.

Also eerie but effective are the thin V-shaped rivets of sand that funnel hauntingly over and down from the elevated ridge in “Act Without Words II” to join the beach that is Alexander Brodsky’s stunning set. Lit with implicit bleakness by Jennifer Tipton, it is hemmed in by a sea of surrounding window blinds. All closed, of course.

Who could resist the sly humor of a palm tree descending from the ceiling to open like a beach umbrella? Or the effortless physicality that Baryshnikov displays when falling sideways in the Charlie Chaplin like meditation on thwarted desire that is “Act Without Words I?” There is much left open for individual interpretation in the visual complexity of these silent plays from an author whose view of human nature was so often grim.

What is the meaning, after all, of the ominous Phillip Glass music playing as a giant metal arrow prods two humans pods along the assembly line of time/routine much as an avid spermatazoid would prod an egg? For this reviewer, it seemed an appropriate choice to reflect Beckett's known view of habit and routine as "a cancer of time."

Regardless of what an audience fills into the silences and symbolism of Beckett, one thing about this particular production is certain. Even its smallest design details convey an undercurrent of mortality and claustrophobia that remains consistent throughout the show.

Waning fall foliage is suggested by the earth tones of Kaye Voyce’s spot-on costume design in “Rough For Theater 1,” which first introduces the human voice into the performance. In this play, an old man with one leg who is bound to a wheelchair (a voracious Bill Camp) befriends a blind musician, with questions like, “What befell you? Women? Gambling? God?”

For some, Beckett is an acquired taste, and this production doesn't spare its audience the full impact of arguably depressing themes. Yet the blending together of so many astute and excellent theater elements in doing so, makes it an evening you don't want to miss.

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In and Out of Time

“Man is man and that is why we had to shoot him.” Well, if that’s the case, why write an anti-war play attempting to prevent man from shooting another man? There is a tremendous tension between human nature, shown at its simplest and worst in the action of Brecht’s Man Is Man, and our attempts to subdue it in favor of a saner world, expressed through the action of writing and staging such a play. This tension gives the play its urgency in times of war and uncertainty such as these, when people struggle with their own passivity in the face of destruction and cruelty. The Elephant Brigade and director Paul Binnerts capitalize on this tension and bring this 1926 play into the present moment. Man Is Man tells the story of Galy Gay (charmingly portrayed by Natalie Kuhn), a poor porter on a simple mission. He wants to buy a fish. But being the gullible, opportunistic man that he is, he quickly finds himself posing as a soldier in exchange for some good words from the troops and a bunch of beer and cigars. Over the course of the play he will lose his identity entirely, and the jolly man we met at the opening will have become a heartless war monger.

So now you know what happens at the end, which could ruin it in some plays. This one, on the other hand, is not about the result, but about the process, about the experience of falling into a war – or that of falling into apathy about it. When Galy Gay’s wife (the excellent Lauren Blumenfeld) ends the first act singing “My Forgotten Man,” it sits in your stomach along with the pain for the hundreds of fresh American widows of the current war, which, you realize, you haven’t even contemplated in quite some time.

In order to better express this experiential component of the script, Binnerts puts the play in what he calls “real time theater,” a technique which is designed for the actors to “function as intermediaries between the play and the audience.” Throughout the two hours of the production the actors are always on stage, either as themselves or as one of the characters. They manipulate video cameras projected onto large screens around the stage, they click on a laptop to create sound effects, they hang scenery and they change costumes. When they speak they do not ignore the spectators but address them often, in what feels like an intermediary zone between self and character. Brecht himself was far from naturalistic with the acting style he employed with his own acting troupe, and it is exciting to witness a contemporary attempt to address both the material and the presentation in a stylized manner that seems like a distant cousin of Brecht’s attitude toward performance. Some of the young Elephants in this new Brigade have a stronger grasp on Real Time acting than others, putting more of themselves into Brecht’s words than what they learned in acting school. When the “acting” appears next to a more sincere presentation in real time by a person being herself onstage, its fakeness throws the spectator out of time, out of story, and back into his mind.

The strengths of this production overtake its weaknesses, and as Brecht would have wanted, the audience walks out thinking about what it means to live in times of war, about the great big machine of recruitment and bombs - Binnerts makes the most of the play’s theme of military recruitment techniques, bringing to the theater a major issue in the American public debate – about the experience of being rolled along by life as if we have no grip on anything, until we become people we once were not, perhaps even people we are not today.

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Colorful Questions

In his 1988 play M. Butterfly, playwright David Henry Hwang reinvented the opera Madame Butterfly with a meditation on themes of cultural stereotypes of East vs. West, and received a Tony Award for Best Play in the process. His career, although it never again reached the heights of success enjoyed by Butterfly, has continued to focus on the complicated idea of identity. However, some of his choices make his newest work Yellow Face, playing at the Public Theater, a muddled lecture. The publicity reps at the Public misrepresent Yellow Face as focusing on the real-life Hwang’s protest against the hiring of British thespian Jonathan Pryce to play the lead role of Eurasian pimp The Engineer in Miss Saigon. (Pryce received rave reviews and won a Tony for the role.) However, this protest is little more than a jumping-off point for the show, which traces Hwang’s journey in analyzing the blurred line between the role of identity in life and in performance. Hwang addresses some of the issues raised in the Saigon fracas in his 1993 follow-up play, Face Value, which closed during previews on Broadway.

Face Value gives birth to a very important chapter in Hwang’s career. He hires an actor named Marcus to play the lead role, an Asian-American, even though Marcus (Noah Bean, late of FX’s Damages) bears confidently Caucasian features. Hwang himself distorts facts and history to supply Marcus with a partially Asian identity, giving birth to a new persona for Marcus, one which leads to a successful career that includes a stint as the king in The King and I.

This is where Yellow Face gets confusing. Face existed, but Marcus and his dilemma do not. And so, as though it were a Charlie Kaufman script, the character of David Henry Hwang (identified as DHH), as played in a dynamic performance by Hoon Lee, experiences an amalgam of real and imagined events in the playwright’s life. What results is a highly entertaining but sometimes confusing meditation on the creative role of the writer. DHH is essentially the parent to Marcus, and their relationship often (but not consistently) parallels the relationship between DHH and his own father Henry Y. Hwang (played by Francis Jue as HYH).

HYH was the CEO of the Far East National Bank and was the subject of an investigation in the late 1990s regarding money laundering for the Central Bank of China, and this scandal shifts the focus off of Marcus in the second act of Yellow Face, making it more poignant but also more disjointed. Hwang the playwright’s attempt seems to be to address the subject of cultural identity stereotypes (which he does most succinctly in a scene revolving around an interview between DHH and an unnamed reporter for The New York Times (Anthony Torn)). But this thesis emerges too late in the show to feel supported as an academic premise. I wonder if Hwang had either kept the premise lighter or created a more fictional piece altogether, perhaps his message would have been less muddled.

What works better is his ensemble cast, who play a multitude of roles that cross lines of gender and race and often invoke stage in-jokes. Julienne Hanzelka Kim, Kathryn A. Layng and Lucas Caleb Rooney round out a cast that bounces back and forth between lighter and heavier scenes, and makes each small moment count. Bean is outstanding as Marcus, a role that shifts in the audience’s eye the more DHH himself learns about him; I look forward to seeing what this young performer does next onstage. Together, Lee and Jue share the best working relationship; I fully believed that I was watching a father and son act together on stage.

Hwang clearly writes about a subject on which he holds much expert power – he is the lone Asian-American playwright to have been produced on Broadway, and his experiences (both successful and disappointing) have informed his opinions. But his decision to stage a play full of meta-analysis disarms any actual analysis he hopes to achieve.

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Unleashed

You don’t know what to expect when you first meet Davy and Brad. All you know is, it can’t be good. Their creaky, wooden home near the ocean is dark and dismal. The television set is on the floor, there are crates where chairs should be, beer bottles line every counter top and a Playboy magazine peeks out from beneath the couch. Brad (Ross Patridge), a man with bedraggled hair, long red pajamas and the bottom half of a grisly bear costume, sits on the couch sleeping with a knife under his pillow. He frantically wields the knife when startled by his brother, Davy (Joshua Leonard) who stomps into the room, frustrated with the lack of progress made in training their attack dogs.

Dogs is produced by the Grid Theater Company, recently founded in 2005 with a mission to find stories that focus on raw human emotions. In this respect, Norman Lasca’s intense character study, Dogs, could not have found a better home. His play examines the origins of our emotions, how they are shaped and, more importantly, how they shape us.

We learn that the attack dogs were at one time agreeable household pets. When the brothers purchased them they used a board with nails to instill anger and fury in the once friendly animals. The dogs were not born angry. Neither were the brothers. If they were at one time innocent children, their mother’s abusive boyfriends and currently impoverished living situation have changed that now.

There are many parallels drawn between the brothers and their dogs. Brad and Davy once owned two dogs that their father banished to a corner of the backyard so confined that the brothers remember it as being torturous, although their own surroundings seem just as dreary as the one they are describing. There is also a telling similarity in a soothing song the boy’s mother used to sing to the dogs when they were howling. Later, Brad croons this tune to Davy when he sees his brother doubled over on the floor whimpering like a kicked dog.

Davy’s wrist is wrapped in an Ace bandage due to a wound inflicted by his favorite dog, who bites when he is asked to sit. It is not until Brad points out that Davy’s attack command to, “Hit,” sounds too similar to the general command to, “Sit,” that Davy realizes the error in his training.

At times Davy and Brad are so clueless and idiotic that their antics are humorous, but when a flirtatious young woman named Viv (Jennifer LaFleur) starts hanging around their musty living quarters, their lack of common sense starts to feel more threatening than funny. They openly leer at her, although she seems accustomed to being leered at. When Davy reaches out a shaky hand to caress her cheek she tenses at first, then relaxes, as if resigned to the fact that men feel entitled to touch her without asking.

Leonard, Patridge and LaFleur are superbly nuanced in the way they convey emotion. Their body language says a lot but their weighted glances and glares say more. However, when they stop biting their tongues and start speaking their minds they practically tear the place apart. There is a lot of physical movement in this play and it is not long before the depressing little shack resembles a war zone.

Kenneth Grady Barker’s set lends itself to the undercurrent of hopelessness and depression with which all three characters struggle. They seem lost, both in the world and in themselves. The play's ending doesn’t exactly fill you with hope, but it does warn you to find a way out of your problems before they lead you here - a place where nothing that happens can lead to anything good.

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A Spot of Christmas

Like a sweet and spicy shot of eggnog, the Irish Repertory Theatre’s intimate production of A Child’s Christmas in Wales and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas goes down easy, warms your insides, and leaves you wanting more. This mild and merry show is the perfect festive tonic for this often over-commercialized holiday season. Set in a cozy living room—complete with hearth, stockings, and twinkling trees—the show features five energetic performers who bring spirited life to these classic texts. Director and adapter Charlotte Moore has also cleverly interspersed both new and traditional Christmas music within the stories, showcasing the ensemble’s excellent voices and charming personalities.

Seated on five well-worn easy chairs, the performers share storytelling and singing duties. Justin Packard leads off with an animated retelling of Clement Clark Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, which is followed by Dylan Thomas’ ruminative memoir A Child’s Christmas in Wales.

Thomas, a prolific writer best known for his moody poetry, was born in Wales in 1914 and died suddenly, just days after his thirty-ninth birthday. In this personal work, he chronicles the family’s holiday activities and an eccentric cast of characters and traditions: the tipsy and bawdy aunts, mountains of luscious candy, bratty cousins, the bullies up the road, devious pranks, endless meals, and his uncles' voluminous bellies.

Above all, this text taps into Thomas’ vivid imagination and his overwhelming affection for his childhood. Many of his memories are tinged with a foreboding darkness—an ominous touch from the writer whose own life would come to a tragic and untimely end, making the glimmers of brightness even more poignant.

Together, these nostalgic tales form a lovely collage of a young boy’s sense of Christmas—stories of mischief, mirth, and mayhem. There’s not much narrative arc or suspense, but it’s delightful to hear Thomas’ words set into motion. At times, the carols that interrupt the text are a bit jarring, but they also underscore the joy, hope, and spirit of the season.

Musical director John Bell sits at the piano and has stitched together glorious harmonies for the ensemble, the majority of whom appeared in the Irish Repertory’s revival of Meet Me in St. Louis last December.

Bonnie Fraser played Esther, the Judy Garland role, in that production, and it’s a gift to hear her reprise “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in another radiant, glowing incarnation. Fraser discovers fresh depth and meaning in the well-traveled ballad, and she brings genuine warmth to the production. In one of the show’s highlights, she joins Kerry Conte, another crystal-voiced singer, to duet on a re-tooled version of “Sleigh Ride,” which features clever percussive touches and integrates a few splashy melodies from Stephen Sondheim’s perky pastiche “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” (from the musical Company).

Ashley Robinson infuses his readings with a little boy’s wide-eyed incredulity, and he offers a sleek and stunning performance of “Oh, Holy Night.” The charismatic Joshua Park adds excellent comic flourishes throughout and is especially winning in “I Don’t Want a Lot for Christmas,” a quirky patter song that describes an impossibly lengthy Christmas list. Packard anchors the production and provides solid support throughout.

At a brief 70 minutes, this show is an irresistible aperitif for the holiday season. The program is filled with lyrics from a handful of songs which will likely stick in your head long after you’ve left the theater. The show is a rare opportunity to experience an oral storytelling tradition that transcends our modern-day electronic isolation. It concludes with poignant lyrics that invite the audience into the convivial atmosphere: “Take my hand, tomorrow’s Christmas / All over the land and cross the sea / Take my hand, we’ll all be together / All of our friends, and you and me.”

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Revolutionary romp

In the preface to Three Plays for Puritans, George Bernard Shaw credits his inspiration for The Devil’s Disciple to William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, but audiences will probably note more of Gilbert & Sullivan in the topsy-turvy world of his 1897 comedy. Set in America during the Revolution, Disciple contains a Puritan-raised hero with sympathy for the devil, a mother who practices cruelty as piety, and a mild Presbyterian minister who ends up as a swashbuckler. Tony Walton’s sterling production at the Irish Repertory Theatre pulls the laughs from Shaw's use of romantic melodrama to launch a pinwheel of commentary on women’s rights, pacifism, religion, false sentiment, and patriotism. The first act functions as a prologue. In the cold New Hampshire winter of 1777, the long estranged Dick (Lorenzo Pisoni) has arrived in town at a moment of crisis for the Dudgeon family and the colonial army. Dick’s uncle Peter has been hanged as a rebel, and his father has died suddenly, so the Dudgeon family gathers at his mother’s hearth for the reading of his father's will.

Darcy Pulliam’s stern Mrs. Dudgeon is a Puritan whose religion consists of oppressing others. Her self-righteousness has provoked Dick’s rebellion and his embrace of qualities opposite to hers: sympathy and pity. Dick further shows his disdain for her and her mantle of officious rectitude by embracing the nickname "the Devil’s Disciple."

Yet, Shaw also suggests that society's treatment of women is partly to blame for creating the gorgon. Although Mrs. Dudgeon brought all the money to the family, the law gives her husband the right to leave her only an allowance and bequeath the bulk to Dick, who takes his uncle’s illegitimate daughter Essie (a wonderfully slovenly Cristin Milioti) under his wing. But the British are approaching, and the meat of Shaw’s play begins in Act II, when Dick, visiting the Rev. Anthony Anderson’s home, is left alone with the parson’s wife, Judith. There he is arrested by the redcoats, who mistake him for the minister they intend to hang as an example.

As Dick tries to persuade Judith (Jenny Fellner) to keep silent about the mix-up and let him go to the gallows to save her husband, Shaw wades into popular melodrama with a big wink. The Irishman also throws in some digs at British imperialism in the person of General John Burgoyne. The jaded “Gentlemanly Johnny” (played with dry humor by John Windsor-Cunningham, but perhaps a shade too much ennui) is a great creation, and his exchanges with Dick on patriotism and propriety dominate the second half of the play.

“I think you might have the decency to treat me as a prisoner of war, and shoot me like a man instead of hanging me like a dog,” says Dick scornfully. “Now there, Mr. Anderson,” remarks Burgoyne, “you talk like a civilian…. Have you any idea of the average marksmanship of the army of His Majesty King George the Third?”

Walton’s production is crammed with fine performances. As Anderson, Curzon Dobell conveys the sincerity and decency of a cleric as well as the inner passion of the romantic hero that he unexpectedly becomes. Craig Pattison is amusingly dim as Dick’s brother Christy. Even Richard B. Watson’s Lawyer Hawkins, wearing a billowing Hogarthian wig (by Robert-Charles Vallance) and chocolate frock coat (the excellent period costumes are designed by Walton and Rebecca Lustig), etches a nifty portrait of a plain-speaking counsel unbowed by Mrs. Dudgeon in his brief scene.

Most important, Pisoni invests Dick with a bluff masculinity, vibrant athleticism, and charm. He can be indulgent toward Christy at one moment and exasperated with him at another, yet he is always human and humane. His scenes with Burgoyne have verbal crackle, but watch him closely for the flashes of physical dexterity that this dashing former acrobat sneaks into his portrayal. If you haven't the money to check out the devil in The Seafarer on Broadway, his disciple will do just as well.

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Ham and Cheese and Storytelling

Upon entering the performance space for No Dice, a former indoor playground in Tribeca, audience members have to make a choice: ham and cheese or peanut butter and jelly? This is just the first of several questions posed by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s exuberant new production. With its emphasis on engaging audiences through a close examination of everyday life, the experimental company is a good match for Soho Rep, which aims to produce unconventional theater that embraces performer/audience relationships. No Dice, with an original development process and a performance style at once vivacious and intimate, succeeds on both accounts.

Nearly everything about No Dice is ambitiously innovative, beginning with its script: there isn’t one. Or, rather, there is no written script from which the actors work. Instead, the text of the four-hour play comes from over a hundred hours of recorded phone conversations conducted with family and friends of creators Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, directors of both Nature Theater of Oklahoma and No Dice. Rather than memorizing transcriptions, the actors listen to the conversations, which loosely focus on livelihood, life aspirations, and the nature of storytelling, on headphones.

That technique calls to mind the work of playwright and performer Anna Deavere Smith, who creates texts from interviews and trains herself to recreate her subjects’ speech by listening to their recordings. But with ridiculously goofy accents and overemphasized intonation, Anne Gridley, Robert M. Johnson, and Zachary Oberzan are not listening to their source material in an attempt at realism.

Likewise, whereas Smith edits her work in an attempt to examine dramatic revelations about her subjects’ lives, the conversation selections depicted in No Dice reveal a collection of people mired in the mundane. Therein lies a central enigma of the play: within the drawn-out caricatures, the daily lives of the people who inspired them become startlingly evident.

No Dice’s ensemble of dedicated actors appears to have a boundless store of comedic energy. The highly stylized nature of their performance extends into their movement, which involves seemingly random sequences of incongruous gestures, as well as their simple yet outlandish costumes. From wigs to facial hair to funny hats, a spirit of play pervades nearly every aspect of the piece.

Among the few components of the production not infused with a sense of playfulness are the words themselves. From a discussion of how many office breaks cubicle dwellers are permitted to chats about indulgence in alcohol, the ordinary concerns articulated by the performers contrast with their exaggerated performance style and raises interesting questions about what is – and isn’t – required in order to make entertainment out of the everyday.

Designer Peter Nigrini’s set, which features rich green curtains hung over ionic columns and adorned with gold comedy and tragedy masks, contrasts with the space’s florescent lights and padded walls, providing a nice frame for the production’s investigation of theatricality. A found space, as opposed to a conventional theater, is an important component of the play, though there is little about this particular space that feels organic or inextricable from the production.

For the majority of the performance, audience and actors are in the same light, an effect that creates an intimate atmosphere, not an intimidating one, largely because of the warmth of the performers. In addition to the three main actors, Thomas Hummel and Kristen Worrall appear onstage off and on throughout the production, sometimes playing music and mostly staying silent. Their presence is essential to the ambience of the play. Hummel’s perpetually shocked expression and Worrall’s pinched concern make the actors appear less alone within the world of their performance while making that world more accessible to the audience.

The intimacy of the production is further enhanced by Liska and Copper, who do everything from appearing briefly onstage to making sandwiches to introducing the production. Audiences should note that when Liska jokes in the curtain speech that they’ve saved the best parts for the second act, he isn’t really kidding. Not that the first act is lacking. On the contrary, the first act feels like a complete play in and of itself, and for a less ambitious company, it would be.

At nearly four hours, No Dice is a demanding production. It helps that the second act utilizes a lot of repetition, guiding audiences through the material while leaving ample room for contemplation. Then, just when the repetition begins to grow old, everything changes. The final moments of the production, in addition to granting audience members welcome insight into the creation of the piece, are transcendently joyous.

Were it shorter, funny costumes and exaggerated diction would make No Dice a charmingly off-kilter comedy. Creating such a lengthy production forces audiences to either engage more deeply with the material or check out completely. Audiences interested in the former will find themselves richly rewarded.

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A Harder Nut

In 1991, choreographer Mark Morris shocked and delighted audiences with The Hard Nut, a witty, gritty, revisionist Nutcracker inspired by R. Crumb cartoons and 1960s kitsch. Now, director and choreographer Angela Harriell's The Nutcracker: Rated R, at Theatre for the New City through December 23rd, is a harder and nuttier interpretation than Morris's, and dynamically, engagingly danced as well. Performed by healthy, human-looking dancers of a variety of body types, The Nutcracker: Rated R fuses traditional pointe work with other dance styles, including an adeptly executed breakdance, comically faux-drunk ballroom, burlesque, hip-hop and modern. There is something for everyone in Harriell's work -- except traditional ballet purists. In this variation of Tchaikovsky's classic Christmas ballet, little Clara Stahlbaum (the sylphlike Juliana Smith) is grumpily attending her restauranteur parents' annual Christmas party, in the restaurant. She has upset her mother by wearing a goth sweatshirt. Her gay, shy, artistic brother Fritz (Adam Pellegrine) is equally out of place among their football-fan guests. When the children's hippie uncle, Drosselmeyer (David F. Slone Esq.) crashes the party with a messenger bag full of fantastic presents, Clara and Fritz both get the night of their dreams. That's right: in this version, Fritz gets to share Clara's adventure, and ultimately undergoes a transformation no less magical than that of the original Nutcracker Prince.

Smith has an amazing range as a dancer, stretching from graceful to edgy. She seems equally at home on pointe during the grande pas de deux near the end as she is with faux street dance and mime. As Fritz and the 1980s rockstar "Firecrotch," Pellegrine shows great versatility, blossoming from a gangly, awkward teenager into a campy, out-there star and finally a figure of more fragile grace.

Harriell's visual witticisms are wonderful, from her update of the Battle with the Rat King (now involving the not toy soldiers, but boiler-suited minions of the Health Department, and fought for dominion of the Stahlbaums' restaurant); to the towering Empire State Building that replaces the Christmas tree; to a sad, haunting pas-de-deux by a pair of half-sleeping homeless people.

Jean Luc van Damme's video images, shown on a screen at the top of Adam Pellegrine's minimalist set, are used sparingly and help to clarify the narrative. The video never steals attention from the dancers. Harriell's costumes are vivid, memorable, raunchy when appropriate, and help to define clear, strong characters. The "Queen of the Blow Fairies" is decked out in white sequins and platinum hair, and Times Square stripper Svetlana ("From Russia With Nuts") looks freezing in her ridiculous fur panties. The rats are adorable in hot pink wigs, ears, and tails. Harriell's The Nutcracker: Rated R might not be Tchaikovsky's vision of sugar plums, but it's certainly visionary. Running in the holiday season at Theatre for the New City, it ought to become a New York Christmas tradition.

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Less is More

The ten-minute play has become a genre in its own right. As the producers of Stage THIS! A Evening of F-----n Fabulous Ten-Minute Plays note, the form was “originally intended as a way for playwrights to audition their work in small-scale productions.” There are many reasons for the increasing popularity of the ten minute-play—some of them have to do with distressingly short attention spans among theater-goers. Ten-minute plays generally do not require complex staging and more playwrights get to see their work come to life. And, if a particular piece is poor, well, they’ll be another one in ten minutes. The producers of Stage THIS!, Sydney Stone and Frank Blocker, are remarkable for the respect they accord playwrights and their work, an attitude to be applauded. They want to give everyone a chance; no fewer than twelve plays are featured in this production of Stage THIS!. The production is a microcosm of what is good and bad about the 10-minute play genre. The producers’ main flaw is perhaps being overly magnanimous to more submissions than this production should logically accommodate, since most of the pieces are light comedy and the minority are grave and acutely sober.

It’s been noted elsewhere and often that the theater is currently suffering through an invasion of sit-com writers in disguise. That seems evident here; several of these plays seem to emulate “Must See TV.” Our Little Angel by Steven Korbar, about a husband and wife duking it out over a min-Hershey bar pilfered from their daughter’s plastic Halloween pumpkin, would fit in nicely as a plot in The Family Guy. I can easily imagine Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm arguing with the talented Emilie Byron at “Y-Mart” over the last package of condoms in J. Michael Harper’sThe Last Box . And Moti Margolin might as well be playing an anxiety-riddled George Costanza as he confesses to his friend Carl (Eric C. Bailey) in John Tyler Owens’Blue-Collared Dreams his recurring nightmare about performing oral sex on a male co-worker. All three of these plays are entertaining and as funny as anything you will see on television.

Yet, all this comedy sometimes confounds the earnest and solemn plays on the same bill. Piney Ridge by La’Chris Jordan, though not original in the slightest, and hobbled by poor acting by both of its male actors, grapples with the bloody 1920’s lynching of a young black man accused by a white woman of rape. While occasionally powerful, it just seems thrown in for good measure. Moonshine on the Rocks, a syrupy remembrance of love past by a now elderly woman, benefits from some exceptional slight-of-hand directing by Frank Blocker, but goes in a different direction entirely from what immediately follows, Whatever Happened to…the Three Sisters? by Bill Cosgriff, an absurd psychotic riff, anchored by the consistently excellent (she stars in three of these plays) Stacie Theon, on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. The fictional Forrest Gump’s maxim, “Life is like a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re gonna get,” may be even more applicable to a wide-ranging collection of ten-minute plays, such as those in Stage THIS!. While most of the plays are invigorating in their own ways, here are the standouts to watch for, if you go:

By the Australian playwright, Alex Broun, Saturday Night Newtown, Sunday Morning Enmore is a gentle and poignant piece about two lonely hearts who share a night of drunken romance and how the awkwardness of the morning after can be assuaged with a little light-hearted imagination. Remarkably, Night Nurse was the first play that playwright Cara Vander Wiel ever submitted for competition; it’s superb. A demented and desperately lonely nurse working the night shift, played by Ms. Theon, reveals deep and dark secrets to a comatose patient. Bobby Abid is convincing and outstanding as a high school senior tutoring a junior and falling in love with him in Johnny Ramirez Really Wants to Kiss Me.

There’s only one flat-out bomb: Evelyn J. Pine’s nonsensical and irritating Terror, Astonishment, Love, which, unfortunately, closes the show. There are some real gems here, and much accomplished acting. A bit more discrimination—-cutting out two or three of the buzzkillers or staging them elsewhere--would make a big difference in the cohesiveness of the offerings, since most of this is unmistakably comedy. That being said, this is a worthy effort that makes for an enjoyable evening of theater. I recommend seeing this if you are adventurous, enjoy all types of one-acts, particularly quick-paced comedy, and don't mind sitting through two or three slower pieces.

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Pacific Island Winds

In one of the many touching moments in Bembarang, Kinding Sindaw’s delightful Philippine dance drama now playing at La Mama’s Annex theater, an island princess struggles with one of the several colorful cloths that make up her costume. As she dances she moves it from her stomach to her chest, brings it above her head and back down, and finally rolls it off into her hands in a bundle. Now she holds in her arms her newborn baby boy. The imaginative treatment of the production elements, from costumes through music, props and set, all drawn from the dramatic tradition of the Philippines, give this performance a breath of fresh ocean air which is so rare even in this multi-cultural coastal city. Bembarang is a successful amalgamation of an ancient Philippine tale of love and loyalty, Darangen, and a historical event from the turn of the twentieth century, known as Perang sa Bayang. The evening opens with a glimpse of the latter, which takes place behind the risers of the beautiful Annex. American soldiers in drab uniforms hold local women in fiery colored dresses in captivity. They treat them in a rough, demeaning and insensitive manner as the children cry aloud. The tone is set for the rest of the piece, far from the realistic acting style that permeates our city’s stages. It is this distance that allows the spectator to observe how history repeats itself in our own time, rather than to be offended by an overly simplistic portrayal of a political event. After this prologue the audience is led to their seats, the islanders are led to their onstage place of captivity, and the ancient drama begins.

There are few words spoken. Some are sung in Tagalog by the talented dancer/narrator. The story unfolds through movement, accompanied by a strong ensemble of musicians on gongs and drums. We watch a courting scene, a wedding celebration, some juicy scenes of female rejection, a double birth that smoothly rolls into the next scene, years later, in which the kids are acting up as kids do. We even get some battle scenes to complete our craving for that kind of excitement.

Like other theatrical forms from the east, the story is not confined to one place and time. The clever use of props and costumes is all that is needed to transport the scene not only from one locale to another, but also from one emotional state to the next. In one scene each of the twenty dancers holds a tall bamboo shoot up from the ground, as the princess (the poised and concise Amira Aziza) wanders through a forest. The bamboo shoots sway like trees in the wind and the music fills the space with mysterious sensations. Suddenly there is a break, the rhythm accelerates and all the ten-foot-high shoots fall gracefully to the ground, adding punctuation to the drums as they hit the floor on beat. The bamboo now becomes a dangerous field which the princess must cross. She dances, as if walking on snakes, evading the danger. The long poles then rise from the ground to surround her. She is caught. But there is one more transformation for these props. They form a chariot and raise the princess to bring her back to the prince, as the scene's tone of fear gives way to one of relief.

By the time the American soldiers come back into the picture, we feel like we have a full picture of what life was like in the Philippines when the US army showed up in 1902 and committed the massacre in the Battle of Bayang. When the heavy soldiers dance their way into this ancient epic they seem like a grotesque bunch of clunky aliens floating into a planet to which they do not belong. The political point that director/choreographer Potri Ranka Manis is making presents itself viscerally as the intruders crash the beautiful party of the traditional dance form. In opposition to the soldiers, we watch a different attitude towards battle, that of the island men who honorably and regretfully prepare themselves for war. The word “defense,” as in ''Ministry of,'' suddenly takes on meaning. The men dance their war gear on, sword, shield, bandana, and begin to practice the only kind of battle they know, face to face combat. The bullets come flying at them from behind.

Go get a breath of some Pacific Ocean air, and see Bembarang. While the dancers vary in talent, Ranka Manis has put together a stage picture that tickles the senses, and provides a different way of thinking about theater, one which has the capacity to enhance the work witnessed on our stages here in what we like to think of as theater headquarters of the world. Through a classical form, she uses her tradition to make an important statement about what we see happening in our world today.

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Christmas Special

What is it about the holidays that lends so easily to excess? With marathons of Christmas movies on television and Christmas music dominating radio stations, it is only fitting that experimental theater have its own version of a holiday-themed marathon. The Brick Theater, with a history of producing innovative festivals, makes a fitting home for such a production. Anyone looking for a crash introduction to talented writers and directors of contemporary downtown theater would do well to check out The Baby Jesus One-Act Jubilee: Second Coming. The excess of the cheekily-titled marathon, which features twelve one-acts divided into two programs (the “MARYS” and the “JOSEPHS”, as when The Brick produced a similar program in 2005) comes from an amalgamation of different styles and themes. In a shift away from the material excesses that often accompany the holidays, the emphasis of these barebones plays is squarely on the texts; most design elements go uncredited in the program.

When the plays do use strong design choices, it is usually to good effect, as in Robert Saietta’s Uncomplicated, the first play of the JOSEPH program (9pm Thursdays and Saturdays, 7pm Fridays), which takes place in the home of Wendy, whose living room is as full of clutter as her life is of complication. Under the tight direction of Buddy Peoples, Uncomplicated opens to Wendy’s ex-boyfriend Peter (Peter Lettre) sneaking in to deliver her a Christmas present. Her new girlfriend Tink calls him “a pedantic windbag,” a description Lettre takes to heart in his portrayal of Peter, while also lending him a drunken desperation that makes clear what Wendy may have once seen in him. Even Tink, played with confident pluck by Jessica Hedrick, senses that there is more to him than his jealous stalker tendencies. At the center point of the triangle, Alana Jackler successfully creates a character not frequently seen in popular media: a smart woman who is both likable and stable while leaving open the possibility that she struggles with her sexuality.

From there, the JOSEPH program makes a leap into absurdism that continues – and develops – over the course of the evening. The whimsy begins with Mack Schloff’s The Revellers, a charmingly quirky riff on how a couple’s energy and heat affects its compatibility. Key (Brick Associate Artistic Director Jeff Lewonczyk, who also directs) suspects his girlfriend Con (Brick Associate Artistic Director Hope Cartelli) of harboring a secret crush on Ed, a fellow guest at their holiday party. She admits that he's right: she keeps imagining their names together at the top of an envelope.

The Revellers continues in brief sections over the course of the program that moves quickly enough to keep the gimmick from growing stale while also creating the rhythms of the endless string of holiday parties that the characters attend: “It’s more than just a circuit,” complains Key of the Christmas party rounds, “It’s practically a grid!” When the story of Key and Con concludes, it does so with the best placed light cue of the marathon.

Eric Bland’s the aptly titled Mother Mary Come to Me, the third play of the program, poses unspoken questions concerning the importance of Mary’s virginity. Directed by Scott Eckert, the mixed-media piece provides welcome variation in the marathon’s performance style. A newly widowed father to Baby Jesus, Joseph’s anachronistic courtship of Mary – he meets her jogging in Prospect Park – is projected onscreen, while their real-life counterparts wait onstage, effectively dwarfed by their larger than life images.

The sketch-comedy style of the video, which is captioned with Mary’s self-affirming narration, contrasts with the characters' quiet onstage presence. With Michael Cera-esque awkwardness, Brian Barrett’s Joseph makes uncomfortable attempts at foreplay and talks about “real sex” while Siobhan Doherty’s clear-eyed Mary worries about Jesus, asleep in the next room.

The following one-act, And the Spirit of Christmas Passed, takes contemporary controversial issues of global warming and military families of perpetually absent servicemen, and draws them out to extremes. Set in a climate-changed future on Christmas Eve, the play features a talented cast (Nancy Lee Russell, Rufus L. Tureem, and Meghan V, Tusing) that commits admirably to bizarre circumstances not fully elucidated by David Barth’s direction of Jakob Holder’s ambling script.

The following play is among the more imaginatively absurd of the marathon. Trayf, written by Matthew Freeman and directed by Kyle Ancowitz, features what perhaps no play has before: a drunken, depressed rabbi relaying the story of Hanukah to a gigantic lobster bent on a conversion to Judaism. The incessantly cheery lobster (Mathew Trumbull) seated beside a disgruntled, disheveled rabbi (David DelGrosso) makes for an entertaining premise that wears thin by the time lobster Jim lights the Hanukah menorah and ends the play.

The JOSEPH program concludes with the marathon’s most stylized play. Performed largely in song, Sincerely, Raven Harte, by Emily Conbere with music by Michael Sendrow, depicts a man with a troubled family life attempting to write a Christmas newsletter. A chorus of masked, Christmas sweater-clad women (Bekah Coulter, Nicole Stefonek, and Lisa Zapol) create a rich balance of comedic and creepy which, under the direction of Dominic D’Andrea, pervades much of the piece. The effect is at once disturbing and uplifting, an impressive achievement and a refreshingly complex note on which to end the JOSEPH plays.

The MARY program (7pm Thursdays and Saturdays, 9pm Fridays), with more diverse styles of performance, doesn’t build toward a climactic absurdist point as do the JOSEPH plays, rather, the MARY evening provides a smattering of performance styles on a variety of holiday themes. On opening night, a stalled MTA train prevented the presentation of one of the plays (Carolyn Raship’s A Bender Family Christmas, directed by Daniel McKleinfeld), and likely threw off the balance of the evening; it’s clear that curators Lewonczyk and Michael Gardner, Artistic Director of the Brick, have put a lot of thought into the running order of the plays.

The MARY plays open with Jason Craig’s The Baby Jesus Conversation, which Gardner directs. Two young men in jeans, sneakers and sweaters (Tom Lipinsky and Randall Middleton) spend the short play earnestly exchanging their wacky ideas and suspect reminisces about the nature of the Christ child. The strange, energetic chat from otherwise normal-seeming young men sets an appropriate tone for the evening.

Boyish enthusiasm continues in Qui Nguyen Action Jesus, which features apostles Judas and Peter (Gregg Mozgala and Chris Smith) plotting a second demise of Jesus (a cartwheeling Jason Liebman). With pop-cultural references ranging from Superman to the Wizard of Oz, Action Jesus is the Christ story as influenced by tough guy action flicks. Such a premise has the potential to come across as awkward sketch comedy, but director Michael Lew understands exactly what Nguyen is getting at, and expertly paces the production, eliciting performances from the actors that are both vengeful and goofy.

From there, the program takes a softer turn with Jason Grote’s A Christmas Carol, directed by Shannon Sindelar. The solo performance piece has a senile Scrooge recount the events from the evening of Dickens’ story, expertly delivered with subtle desperation and longing by Ralph Pochoda. The production does more than use a narrator suffering from dementia to prompt audiences to question the validity of the Christmas classic. The play narrows the focus of A Christmas Carol in order to pose quiet, pointed questions about the story’s use of capitalism. It’s a welcome thought piece amidst the high energy, zany program.

A Christmas Carol is followed by Marc Spitz’s Marshmallow World, which brings a literal return to the craziness. Set in a support group, the play features a collection of colorful oddballs all suffering from “sonic” addiction. Victor (Brick Technical Director Ian Hill, who also directs, in addition to serving as marathon light designer and tech director) is among the group’s more senior members and seems strangely sweet given his criminal record, substance abuse, and obsession with NPR’s Terry Gross. Meanwhile, Angel (Alyssa Simon) yearns for a better sense of aesthetics as she tries to move beyond her love of bad music at intimate moments, while Ray (Aaron Baker) fears a particular infamous string of notes. All three deliver comedic performances that embrace their characters’ quirks while resisting the urge to play them as simply insane.

From the beginning, however, audience attention is drawn to Boris (Jason Liebman), who sits alone in a corner hiding in a black hoodie and looking as though he wants to disappear. Fortunately, he instead reveals why he has come: he’s a religious Jew obsessed with Christmas music. As Boris, Liebman is at once deeply distraught and charmingly amusing. Elsewhere in the program, Liebman is engaging as anachronistic Biblical thugs, and it’s fun to see him succeed here at something different.

The MARY program closes with Eric Sanders’ Hollow Hallow, a dark play set on a U.S. military base in Iraq on Christmas Eve. Directed by Jake Witlen, Hollow Hallow utilizes a neat bit of audience interaction that, as this reviewer can personally testify, raises interesting questions about boundaries, power, and empathy. Yet the American soldiers (Alec Beard, Gavin Star Kendall, and Joyce Miller) fail to exude the disciplined authority that one might expect of them. They deliver committed performances that make their characters seem more like cruel kids stabbing at power than like trained members of the U.S. military. That may be part of the point, but the production would be stronger if it showed how the characters’ military identities relate to their acts of unbridled fury.

After moments of terror, Hollow Hallow ends on a startlingly warm note that effectively emphasizes the discontinuities of celebrating a cheerful holiday season during wartime. It’s a surprising ending to both the play and the program as whole and it works. With its twelve different plays, such juxtapositions are part of the delight of The Baby Jesus One-Act Jubilee. Anyone seeking an unconventional take on the holiday marathon will not be disappointed.

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Practicing Divinest Sense

The private world of Samuel Finkelbaum is both a purgatory and a haven, a tragic and tender place brought to life in exquisite detail by the Blue Heron Theatre and the Mirth A Theatre Company. In their bitterly humorous production of The Puppetmaster of Lodz , by Gilles Ségal, the presence of the minutiae of daily life and the performance of household rituals make the lives of the Holocaust victims immediately tangible. However, rather than simply elicit shock and sympathy, Gilles Ségal’s clever structure and the cast’s solid performances present a complex meditation on the unique guilt of a “survivor." It is a testament to the strength of Ségal’s writing and of Robert Zukerman’s nuanced performance that Finkelbaum can be seen as both exceptional and representative—the survivor whose life is proof. Within Finkelbaum’s apartment, his day is composed of normal activities, performed for the audience in real time. There is something cozy and hypnotic about the execution of familiar tasks, and about the uncomplicated dialogue between two people in love. The audience soon discovers that the dialogue is only a wistful monologue that Finkelbaum speaks to a puppet. His world is anything but normal. This is Berlin in 1950, and outside his apartment great changes are happening. At least, that is what those on the other side say. Throughout the play, the building’s concierge (played by Suzanne Toren) tries to convince Finkelbaum, a Holocaust survivor, that the war has ended. However, as someone who knows the cruel fate of those who blindly believed, Finkelbaum resists her explanations and refuses to leave.

Zukerman is nothing short of astonishing as he follows the manic turns of Finkelbaum’s monologue. With his skilled performance, the Puppetmaster’s seeming insanity is at once charming, funny, and deeply sad. There is never a moment when his humorous lines alleviate the sadness or guilt of his life, and the viewing experience is appropriately uneasy. As a puppet master, Finkelbaum is at his happiest and most entertaining when he is composing his grand show: “The Tragicomic Life of Samuel Finkelbaum." In this performance within a performance, Zukerman’s comedic talents range from hilarious slapstick to bitter satire. Ralph Lee has designed a varied cast of eerily human puppets to star in Finkelbaum’s show. Throughout the play, Zukerman manipulates these forms with haunting dedication. In particular, the reenactments of crimes committed in the camps are scenes of horrifically wanton destruction.

As the concierge, Suzanne Toren shifts between the morbid curiosity and tentative guilt of an average citizen. With stubborn insistence, she presents what she believes to be credible witnesses to the American and Russian occupation of Berlin. That these witnesses (all played with entertaining variation and pitch-perfect accents by Daniel Damiano) recall the puppets Finkelbaum uses to fill his life and tell his story, cleverly demonstrates that stories are being told on both sides of the keyhole.

The distance between the inside and outside of the apartment appears to be an unbridgeable gap until Finkelbaum’s companion in escape makes a sudden appearance. Schwartzkopf, played by Herbert Rubens, is a calm and commanding presence, unlike his wild and distrustful friend. Their very real affection is a heartwarming change from the previous scenes with puppets. But the heartwarming interlude quickly turns heart wrenching. Though Finkelbaum has lived, he has not escaped, and the world holds nothing for him. After the reunion, he holds his real friend and his imaginary wife, and laments the fact that he is unable to go mad.

The cataclysmic horror of the Holocaust is emphasized by the complicated set and lighting designs of Roman Tatarowicz and Paul Bartlett, respectively. Because Finkelbaum moves through a cozily cluttered apartment and performs the routines of any man, his life assumes a familiarity that contrasts with the singularity of his past and present. The faithful recreation of a lived-in apartment is achieved with the detailed set and the wonderful lighting design. The small overhead light in Finkelbaum’s apartment casts a consistently homey glow. In the play’s grotesque moments, the light turns greenish, Finkelbaum’s complexion appears sickly, and the room becomes unfamiliar. It is clear that he will always be alternating like this between darkness and light, and that for him the war will never be over.

The play’s power is timeless in a very disturbing way. As the playwright points out, the human world is always the home of horrors, whether cataclysmic or comparatively small. The crimes of men against men are constantly renewing themselves. Perhaps, then, it is not so crazy to live in constant disbelief. The Puppetmaster of Lodz is not a self-contained story, but part of a narrative of human history that continues to this day and demonstrates that it is not Finkelbaum who is mad, but the world on the other side of his keyhole.

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'Scapades

Commedia dell'Arte troupes began in Italy in 1540. By the 1570's, troupes were all over Europe, including France, where they were able to influence the great playwright Molière. The basic scenario featured old, grumpy fathers preventing their sons and daughters from pursuing their romantic interests. Often, the sons and daughters would seek the help of their servants. In the world of Commedia dell'Arte, Scapin is the rascally servant character. The title character of Molière's comedy, Scapin, is just that. He plots against his masters and envisions himself to be better than he truly is. A new translation of the play by Scott McCrea seeks to remain close to Molière's intent by focusing on the comedy of the play and depicting Scapin as a social climber. Turtle Shell's production creates a bright, animated atmosphere. The play is set in “Itty Bitty Italy,” the smallest city in Italy, sometime in the 1970's. The sets, by Keven Lock, create a truly carnivalesque backdrop to the action of the play. Paper lanterns hang along the wall; neon pinks and purples abound. The costumes, by A. Christina Gianini, complement the set: Scapin is dressed in double knit lime green pants, a nod to the traditional scapin costume but with a 70's flair.

A musician (Jay Painter) is present from the minute the house doors open to take the audience into the world of the play. His performance of interacting with the audience and welcoming them to the theater initially felt forced, as though he were still warming up to the role. However, by intermission, he had the audience rolling in laughter as he sang songs to certain audience members and made balloon animals.

The physicality of the actors was remarkable. The two porters (Emile Nebbia and Jay Painter) were constantly at war with each other, battling with a set of suitcases at one point and stripping down to have a wrestling match at another. The famous scene, in which Scapin tricks his master Geronte into a sack and then pretends to be evil swordsmen who beat and stab him, is sublime. How long will the beating last until Geronte pops out of the sack and discovers Scapin's connivery? Moliere cuts the beating off at the third one, perhaps as a relief to the audience, perhaps not, as opinion of Geronte may be considerably low at this point. He has lied about Scapin to his son, and is so miserly he had difficulty parting with 500 crowns to supposedly free his son from pirates.

The performances of the cast are for the most part strong. Spencer Aste is great as Scapin, introducing himself with a flourish of the arms every time his name is said. He elevates himself to such a degree that it is easy to forget that he is, ultimately, the servant of Leandre and Geronte. Catherine Wronowski pulls of a great performance as Zerbinette, the gypsy girl whom those 500 crowns are really saving. In the second act she tells Geronte, not recognizing him as the father of her love, Leandre, of Scapin's plot to get the 500 crowns. Her animated monologue is accompanied by the heavy guitar strumming of the musician, who despite seeming to know that she is telling all to a man she should not, eggs her on.

Scapin accomplishes its goal of focusing on the comedy: it is hilarious. The brightly colored set, costumes, excellent and subtle lighting by Eric Larson, and physical portrayal of the characters by the actors ensure a funny and fun evening of theater for anyone looking for a classic laugh.

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Beavers Take Manhattan

Legend has it that Peter Minuit purchased the island of Manhattan (or Manhatta) from the Lenape for the impressively trivial sum of $24 in 1626. The legend fails to mention the existence of Kitchi Amik, a six foot beaver with somewhat magical powers, the guardian of the other beavers and to some extent, of humans. The number of industrious and independent women populating the colony of New Amsterdam in the 1600's is also largely unmentioned. New Amsterdames , a new play by Ellen K. Anderson receiving its world premiere by Flying Fig Theater, seeks to correct these omissions of history by depicting several lesser known historical figures and, of course, the giant beaver. The play provides an alternate, slightly comedic view of history, seen through the eyes of those whose stories commonly do not get heard. In 1659, the deed to Manhattan, if it ever existed, is missing. Shipping entrepreneur Margriet wants the deed so that she can rule the island, making every business hers. The beavers Een and Twee want the deed so that the island can be restored to them. Everyone else wants the deed to keep it away from Margriet. Thus begins a wild hunt: where is the deed? Does it even exist? Who will get it in the end?

While the women are hunting for the deed, trouble is brewing in modern day Manhattan. The city is facing dramatic changes in the weather and an onslaught of beavers. Lightning flashes underneath a wooden platform, ominous thunder peals, and heavy rain pounds. All this is reported by newscaster Sweetie Chin, who has some connection to Kitchi Amik and the laws of nature herself.

The play provides a full immersion into all things Dutch: wooden clogs are worn by Sweetie Chin and adorn two pillars, suggesting a trail of shoes. The cast sings and dances traditional Dutch folksongs and Anna Joralemon, creator of the donut, distributes some of her olykoeken to the audience as a way of introduction.

Certain parts of the show drew laughs, for example, a little dog dressed as a baby beaver caused some audience members to shriek in excitement. However, at times the jokes in the play felt forced. In the midst of the search for the deed, Sukalan, the Lenape woman (played by Andrea Caban), runs on stage looking for her friends. Not seeing them, she exclaims: "Where'd she go? I've never lost anything in the woods. Except the time I mislaid a trap and found it by stepping into it myself.” The wooden jokes suggested a larger issue: is New Amsterdames trying to say something that has not already been said before? Women's role in history and society, the question of who the land belongs to, and the issue of race and nationality have been explored by many other stories and plays before.

And yet, one gets drawn into the plight of the women and the beavers, as modern day Manhattan is also at stake. How do the actions of people almost 350 years ago impact the world today? And by extension, how will our world's actions impact the world 350 years from now? New Amsterdames subtly raises this issue while taking its audience on a journey down a uncommonly explored path of history.

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Wit and Whimsy

Imagine that it is December 1803, and you are among the guests invited to join the Austen family and their friends as the writer Jane, that famed observer of both sense and sensibility, is to have her first novel published. The Austens who have gathered at the home of family friends the Bigg-Withers act, sing, and recite letters and poetry in celebration of both her imminent success and the holidays. Except one does not even have to imagine this scenario, so lovingly reenacted as Theater Ten Ten’s “Innocent Diversions: A Christmas Entertainment With Jane Austen and Friends,” directed by Lynn Marie Macy, who also wrote and adapted this show. Macy treats the audience to a revue in which various cast members, in character, reenact Austen’s early writings.

Karen Eterovich makes for a fine Austen, carefully delivering Austen's often locquacious dialogue, and meshing with a host of colorful co-stars. Eterovich is matched by an equally talented ensemble, including David Arthur Bachrach as Austen’s father (who nimbly recites her “Verses to Rhyme With ‘Rose’”), Eyal Sherf as the slightly bumbling (in true Austen-fashion) Mr. Harris Bigg-Wither, Talaura Harms as Madame Anne Lefroy, and Chelsea Jo Pattison, as Fanny, the youngest Austen in attendance. Pattison was a marvel in each of her “scenes,” demonstrating wonderful poise, elocution, and full of pep. Her bio lists Diversions as Ms. Pattison’s Ten Ten debut, having recently hailed from the mid-West. Let’s hope she stays here for a very long time.

Macy’s writing perfectly captures Austen’s humor and understanding of the way both men and women and families relate to each other. Works of hers include "The Beautiful Cassandra," "A Letter from a lady in love to her confidante," and "On a Headache." However, the smaller vignettes succeed far more than Macy’s longer ones. A performance entitled “The History of England,” which features the entire cast reciting trivial bits regarding the English monarchy may be historically educational, but it goes on too long and provides no additional commentary on any of the characters. There are two other longer vignettes that feature the entire cast – “The Visit” and “Jack and Alice” – which start promisingly but overstay their welcome. Additionally, Esther David’s line readings were sometimes a little too rushed, and combined with her accent, caused her to garble some of her dialogue.

The staging also leaves something to be desired. Set in Ten Ten’s basement, with just some folding chairs positioned a little too far from the front of the stage, Macy’s acoustics were less than ideal. Sound traveled in odd directions, and some quieter moments failed to be fully absorbed by the audience.

Nonetheless, Diversions is mostly just that – wonderful, light fun for audiences of any age. I was also impressed by Deborah Wright Houston's period costumes, which could have easily come straight from the recent film Becoming Jane. Minor production bugs aside, Diversions remains a great holiday treat, with some wonderful performances. It is yet another reminder of why Austen is one for the ages.

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Philosopher's Stone

Who am I? Why am I here? What do I want? Nothing encourages deep, introspective thoughts like putting together a video for a dating service, or a press meeting, or the inquiring eyes of a room full of strangers. Each situation requires a person to look into the distance and tell whoever is out there - camera, press or audience - who they are and what they want. This is the groundwork Will Eno lays for his series of reflective, existential plays, Oh The Humanity and other exclamations, featuring five short stories that examine the human condition through an intensely philosophical but often comic lens. The two actors Marisa Tomei and Brian Hutchinson sometimes address their probing questions to the audience, breaking the fourth wall to ask, “What do you think?” They never wait for an answer. They know they don’t have to. Their questions are presented in such a way that it is hard to resist internalizing them.

Tomei and Hutchinson speak in engaging and conversational tones. They act like real people living in a real world, not abstract symbols representing something greater than themselves. Their topics may weave through a maze of complexity, but the dialogue stays simple, clearly designed to relate to audiences rather than confuse them.

In Tomei and Hutchinson’s first skit together, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rain, Gentleman (Hutchinson) and Lady (Tomei) stand onstage staring into a camera as they record their profiles for a dating service. The Lady is squinty-eyed and uncertain; the Gentleman is nervous and overly-revealing.

They speak fearfully of life’s sudden endings, the kind that happen before you know what hit you. Lady smiles thinking about the little things in life that make her happy, such as people applauding for something they really love. They talk about the naiveté of childhood, the broken relationships of adulthood, the illnesses and quirks that define them and the way they deal with stress. As Lady and Gentleman’s realizations intensify the lights dim until you can see nothing but their illuminated faces surrounded by darkness. And then the lights go out.

Most of the pieces end with a fade to black, with the exception of The Bully Composition, a truly memorable story that literally goes out with a flash. This vignette offers an unsettling examination of the photograph, specifically its purpose to capture a fleeting moment in time. Photographer (Hutchinson) and his Assistant (Tomei) ask: what does a photograph really capture? We do not know what the people are feeling, what they were doing before they posed for the picture or what they did after it was taken. We know their image but not their story.

Photographer then turns the camera to us, the audience. He wants to take our picture and muses at the many different stories that could come from each of us. He points out that we are all strangers to each other, yet each of us has our own unique history, a set of circumstances that brought us together to this time and place. The Photographer and his Assistant behave as if they can see our personalities surfacing on our faces, implying that if we could see it too we would be amazed to learn how deceiving an image is. Then the piece ends with an exploding flashbulb, a signal that the moment is gone, leaving us as just another image without a story.

Oh! The Humanity is the kind of play that rattles your world and makes you think. Eno’s writing forces you to contemplate both the intricacies of life and the intricacies in yourself. Fortunately, the process is not all headaches and misery. This is the kind of play that makes you want to run outside, share a story with a friend, get to know a stranger better and announce your presence to the world. After all, no one wants to end up as just another image.

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Cardboard Catharsis

Fictional human cruelty is a lucrative subject for the theatre. There is something righteous in our need to witness representations of horrific acts by some theatrical barbarian, and then see that barbarian brought to justice in the final act. In Bread and Puppet Theatre’s arcane new production, The Divine Reality Comedy, the infamous political action group attempts to dramatize the plight of prisoners indefinitely detained in Guantanamo Bay. The point is that there can be no catharsis as the end of this piece—the only barbarians that can be brought to justice, according to Bread and Puppet, are us. With a structure on loan from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Bread and Puppet’s Divine Reality Comedy breaks down into the three sectors of the afterlife: Paradise, Purgatory and the Inferno. No fewer than thirty-four cast members use cardboard cutouts, instructional drop cloths and remarkably engineered puppets to teach audiences the inner workings of each realm. Except this isn’t Dante’s afterlife; Bread and Puppet intend for these short skits to present a compelling metaphor for the contemporary United States.

Heaven is a land of gross (but nonetheless policed) excesses whose citizens wallow in their status at the top of the divine ladder. The ringleader of the “Paradise” is a vaudevillian scarecrow Santa Claus, who takes sardonic glee in the oppression of his subjects. “Post-Paradise,” which apparently didn’t make the cut in Dante’s version, is a dainty cardboard horse dance. In “Purgatory,” all metaphors are abandoned in favor of hard facts about detainees in Guantanamo. Finally, in “Inferno,” we witness disquieting stage tableaus representing the cruel photos taken of detainees.

While Bread and Puppet’s new piece is visually arresting, even heart wrenching at times, it is also frustratingly opaque. While I don’t mean to diminish the efforts of Peter Schumann’s team in tackling these issues, it cannot be ignored that the execution is usually too casual and just plain confusing. For instance, the material is handled with very high levels of whimsy, like the Santa-crow and the horse dance. This is fine, but when wanton silliness commandeers the stage for too long – as in the horse dance – audience members might just give up on the piece. It is likely that the horse dance was an intensely profound metaphor that merely went over my head. Even so, it was far too silly for far too long.

Speaking of metaphors and silliness, both of these elements seem to gallop off with the horses once we get to “Purgatory.” After some highly effective non-literal recreations of society in the “Paradise” segment, the company jarringly presents clinical particulars about the indefinitely detained. This shift in mode quickly sobers the audience, but it also disrupts the overall unity of the piece. Had I seen the “Paradise” and “Post-Paradise” segments in another sitting, I would have never believed that they were part of the same play as “Purgatory” and “Inferno.” While each segment of the Divine Reality Comedy keeps true to its own tone, none of them sync with any of the others.

In spite of this unevenness, one can easily appreciate the jovial air with which the massive cast of volunteers commits to the material and the Christmas Pageant Aesthetic of its choreography, puppets and set pieces. The staging by no means attempts to preserve the suspension of disbelief. Heaven, Purgatory and Hell are denoted by cardboard signs scrawled out in Sharpie marker. When a cast member dons one of the vividly imagined and executed puppet costumes, like the “Paper God,” the change is performed on stage without mysticism. The stoic witnesses to Guantanamo are not sent careening by their response to the horrific acts being committed in front of them, but rather by a push broom.

One scene in the “Paradise” segment offers a glimpse of Bread and Puppet at their best. As the cast members walk from one side of the stage to the other, they find themselves occasionally pursued by two giant black boots (made of cardboard, of course). The cast members swerve to avoid the boots, or else change their direction altogether, ever mindful of the presence of authority but determined not to let it interfere with their lives. Finally, the boots have backed the entire cast into a corner of the stage and will soon be treading on the lot of them. Then, one cast member clearly yells out “Hey!” A few more sporadic shouts follow. One by one, the tyrannized citizens of Paradise shout “Hey,” until they are shouting together as one voice. The power of this determined chorus backs away the boot heals of oppression, and the cast is free to walk in peace again.

This simple but dynamic scene galvanizes the purpose of Bread and Puppet, not only in regards to the Divine Reality Comedy, but also regarding the company’s entire manifesto going back to the Vietnam era: the ghastly truths of the world are sometimes best understood in their plainest terms. While I wasn’t enraptured by this particular piece, I recognize and applaud the work for its willingness to stand up and shout “Hey!” at the revolting events taking place at Guantanamo Bay.

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