Thanks for the Memories

Should you receive a telephone call asking you to re-tell the plot of Romeo and Juliet, those star-crossed lovers from the ever-warring Montague and Capulet families, what would you say? Could you retrieve the play from the fog of high school or college? Would you be embarrassed at gaps in your recollection? Would you embellish the details, or gloss over those parts you can’t recall? Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, the dynamic duo behind the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, called people, including both actors in this production, with precisely that question, to gather material for the frequently hilarious and often charmingRomeo and Juliet. The play’s main content consists of eight monologues, recited by “Bobby” (Robert M. Johanson) and “Anne” (Anne Gidley), talented actors who funnel the confusion, colloquialisms, slang, frustrations, vulgarities and naiveté of the telephone interviewees through Shakespearean affect, to produce sidesplitting results. Picture, if you will, an earnest Shakespearean actor (or a purported Shakespearean actor, which is even funnier) in very tight tights reciting the following somewhat damaged recollection of Juliet’s death, as conveyed by one interviewee, and infused as it is with contemporary allusions:

“There was some like – It was – it was in- Like they set it up as this like – It was already in the morgue… Sort of thing. Like she – Went – And – Killed herself in this very… IT’S SORT OF LIKE ANNA NICOLE! You know?”

Even though the conversations may be loaded with material from acquaintances of Liska and Copper (conversations with complete strangers may have added a different, perhaps less candid and bawdy dimension), this particular Romeo and Juliet succeeds in demonstrating the universality of the great tragedy and its impact on our society’s collective memory. Even though the interviewees get it so wrong, somehow, in the end, they get it right. Peter Nigrini’s simple set is clever in its signaling of the dialogue’s lack of sophistication. It’s a simple wooden painted stage—with painted curtains—in front of which the actors stand to recite their monologues.

Romeo and Juliet, consists of three distinct parts. The first part—the longest—is the hilarious recitation of the interviewees’ interpretations of the play. Once that’s over, in my opinion, the play should have ended. The second and third parts, unfortunately, are troubling and don’t really take us anywhere. It’s almost as if Liska and Copper are struggling to find a way to end the piece, and that wrapping it up with the interviewees’ recollections wasn’t quite enough. (Don’t even ask about the giant chicken that comes up from under the stage between some monologues. It’s hilarious, by the way.).

Ultimately, Liska and Copper concoct a somewhat boring exchange between Ms. Gridley and Mr. Johanson about subjects like “neediness.” Strangely, the actors even comment on their views of acting and even on the very enterprise in which they’ve just engaged:

ANNE

…Like I think if – I think if an actor is CONSTANTLY involved in projects that – he is making a sacrifice – himself because he doesn’t believe in the project, he doesn’t –

BOBBY

Or just wants to be loved!

ANNE

- Or thinks – he thinks it’s mediocre! He thinks it’s beneath his talent! But he keeps doing it and doing…

Why would anyone want to include this exchange in the very play in which the actors are performing? This incongruent and dull dialogue continues, nearly unabated, for a full 15 minutes. Once this disaster ends, the production’s creators stillcan’t seem figure out how to end the play, so they turn very serious, going directly to the balcony scene in the real Romeo and Juliet, shrouding the audience in darkness. It almost works, but not quite. It’s too awkwardly juxtaposed to the previous exchange and it ultimately seems like an afterthought.

Why not trust the interviewees to end the play, rather than simply use them as laughingstock? They may not have been sophisticated but they sometimes uttered, perhaps to even their own amazement, something universal and quite profound. Had I been struggling with the play’s ending, I might have simply turned back to the wobbly Bobby in Monologue #6:

“She POISONED herself! And EVERYONE is sad, and they’re like… ‘WHY are we all fighting?!’ It’s all about: WHY ARE WE ALL FIGHTING?! Why can’t we just – LOVE one another?! I think that’s what it’s all about. Yeah.”

Despite the significant problems in its latter parts, the first hour of the play remains ingenious and unlike anything we have seen in recent theater. For that alone, this Romeo and Juliet is well worth the price of admission.

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Talk, Glorious Talk

Misalliance may not be as well known as Bernard Shaw’s other country estate play, Heartbreak House, but Jeff Steitzer’s production of his seldom produced comedy at the Pearl Theatre makes it sparkle as brightly as any of the more famous plays. It’s talky, as Shaw always is, but what talk! A sterling cast wrings gallons of juice out of the intellectually stimulating dialogue. Shaw’s subjects encompass child-rearing, relations between the generations, sex, education, and conformity. Hypatia Tarleton (Lee Stark), whose father, John, is an underwear tycoon, has determined to marry weedy Bentley Summerhays (Steven Boyer), the sniveling son of a former colonial governor. Her choices are narrowing, Hypatia reckons, and Bentley is the best she thinks she can do.

However, Bentley is given to tantrums to get his way, and they naturally irritate Hypatia’s brother, John (Bradford Cover), a solidly dependable worker in his father’s factory who opposes his sister’s misalliance. Meanwhile, Dominic Cuskern’s Lord Summerhays has himself approached Hypatia about marriage, stealing his son’s thunder.

After a plane with two passengers crash-lands in the Tarletons’ greenhouse, scattering shards of debris in Bill Clarke’s bright, comfortable sun room, more romantic entanglements ensue. Hypatia falls for the pilot, dashing Joey Percival (a strapping yet stolid Michael Brusasco), who happens to be a schoolmate of Bentley’s. And Hypatia’s father falls for the passenger, Polish aviatrix Lina Szczepanowska, a woman from a family that makes it a point of honor that one member every day must risk his or her life—one of the wackiest conceits in all of Shaw's work.

Lina is fearless, strong, and independent—a 20th-century woman, or perhaps Shaw’s Superwoman. Erika Rolfsrud finds all the rich possibilities in the character: toughness and bravado, perhaps a hint of lesbianism in the way she disdains the men who worship her, and a streak of genuine spirituality. Lina reads the Bible “to remind myself that I have a soul.” (The accents, from Polish to northern brogue to lower-class, are a credit to dialogue director Dudley Knight.)

The debate covers age vs. youth, upper class vs. lower, and sex, rather unabashedly for 1909. The lower-class Mrs. Tarleton (the cheery Robin Leslie Brown, alternately prim and forward-thinking) is proud of her upward mobility and her loss of accent and lower-class values. “At 40,” she brags to Hypatia, “I talked like a duchess.” Ironically, she’s speaking only of her accent. Her discussion of her shock at discovering that duchesses and marchionesses converse about unmentionable subjects—like drainage—is a highlight in a play with many, and the way she shudders with discomfort at hearing the word “secreted” is just one hallmark of the shrewd and careful direction.

Strangely, the real hero in Misalliance isn’t the young Johnny, or Bentley, or Joey, but Dan Daily’s John Tarleton, a young man trapped in a middle-aged body. Tarleton is a self-made man who has what he calls "superabundant vitality," which includes a fair share of lust. Yet he's also an intellectual who funds free libraries. He wanted to be a writer of literature but found himself easily making money and unable to forgo it for art.

Tarleton is always urging authors on his listeners for mental stimulation. “Read Pepys' diary,” he advises (it helps to know that Pepys was candid about his sexual exploits), or “Read Dickens” (not the novels, but the letters to his family). And about the notion of Superman, “Read whatsisname”—Shaw himself, of course. Daily embodies the duality of the character, as well as the sense of his disappointments.

Through it all the cast sinks its teeth into Shaw’s characteristic zingers, such as Summerhays’ observation, “Democracy reads well, but it doesn’t act well.” Perhaps Lee Stark throws her arms about a bit too physically for a young woman in 1909—she seems almost as active as Lina—but she captures both Hypatia’s high spirit ("I want to be an active verb") and her dissatisfaction. Pearl regular Sean McNall acquits himself well as the burglar, an unaccustomed character part. And the running joke of Lina dragging various men off to the gymnasium is never overplayed. If you haven’t ever seen Shaw, this is a good place to start. And even if you have, you still may not conceive what a treat awaits you at the Pearl.

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Star Wars

The Mint Theater is devoted to unearthing forgotten plays. Its mission, according to its website, is to reclaim these plays “for our time through research, dramaturgy, production, publication and a variety of enrichment programs.” They have mined a worthy treasure in Maurine Dallas Watkins’ So Help Me God, a 70-year-old play that’s slightly tarnished by time but still golden. Watkins’s influence has not been wholly ignored by time. Though God never got its due back when she was alive, the playwright enjoyed considerable success; her The Brave Little Woman told the story of Roxie Hart and was adapted into an early dramatic version of Chicago, which provided the blueprint for the Bob Fosse musical. Shortly thereafter, Watkins became best known as a screenwriter.

In fact, God resembles one of the most famous movies of all time. But if this backstage drama about the rivalry between the leading diva of her time and an ingénue that aspires to take her place sounds more than a little reminiscent of All About Eve (or, perhaps, Applause, its later musical incarnation), it shouldn’t; Watkins’s play pre-dates Joseph Mankiewicz’s work by more than two decades.

However, God does suffer a bit by comparison. It feels more primitive than the better-defined Eve, in which two actresses fight to be stars and both end up losing a piece of themselves. God is a bit more lopsided. Kristen Johnston is Lily Darnley, famous and a force to be reckoned with. She is rehearsing a play, “Empty Hands,” scheduled to begin its out-of-town tryout run. This is to be the work that solidifies Lily as a “serious actress.” Desperate not to take any chances on the play’s reception, Lily makes demand after demand, changing lines and altering her character completely so that the audience will like her even better than they already do.

If that audience could see her behind the scenes, however, they’d surely run the other way. Lily is a monster, as her fan Kerren-Heppuch Lane (Anna Chlumsky) learns when she sneaks into a rehearsal. Before long, of course, Kerren assumes the role of understudy. But Watkins never makes the starlet’s talons as sharp as the star’s. While her very presence threatens Lily, Kerren is no match for her; unlike Eve, Kerren will not stop at nothing to become a star. She merely takes advantage of certain circumstances as they are thrust upon her, the way anyone would. Kerren is neither bad nor purely innocent. What she is is forgettable, and as a result, hard to root for. Meanwhile, though Lily is basically evil, she is also far more interesting. Thus, the central conflict between God’s two leads is a lose-lose.

Watkins’ skill is winning when pointed at the other backstage machinations, which I imagine were far more revelatory when God was written than they are to a Perez Hilton-saturated generation. Hurricane Lily creates a revolving door of creative forces. She plots to replace leading actor Jules Meredith (Kevin O’Donnell) with arrogant British actor Desmond Armstrong (Matthew Waterson), while actor Bart Henley (John G. Preston) fights to beef up his own role. The hoops that these men jump through are both farcical and familiar, and give the play much of its bite. I was particularly impressed by O’Donnell, who combined elements of self-awareness and doltishness for Jules.

Other supporting actors who round out the “Empty Hands” company help as well. Jeremy Lawrence is terrific as Blake, the stage manager who becomes a human pinball, bouncing from one dictate to another. So are Ned Noyes as George Herrick, a playwright forced to make one compromise after another until his work bears no resemblance to its original form, and Allen Lewis Rickman as Mose Jason, a producer who might as well be a general at war. Catherine Curtin as supporting player Belle is also spot-on.

Bank’s play moves great, even churning laughter from some of Watkins’ more dated dialogue, until he returns to his leading ladies. Johnston, a towering actress with a thunderous voice, makes Lily a perfect blowhard, and gets the physicality down adeptly (especially after Lily has consumed a good deal of vodka). Chlumsky can communicate Kerren’s determination, but not the fire that propels her to carry forth against such a considerable foe. The character never transforms in front of the audience. She just reappears having made new choices; Chlumsky can make Kerren’s individual scenes work, but she cannot bridge the sizeable gap between them.

It may be that both actresses are underserved by the material; Lily and Kerren have very little time alone to go at each other onstage until the climax in the third act, which proves problematic for several reasons. God is a three-act play, but there is no intermission between the second and third acts, and it takes an awkwardly long time to change the set (still, Bill Clarke’s design is terrific, as are Clint Ramos’ period costumes).

More importantly, the third act is only one scene long, and it isn’t very long at that. Has Bank trimmed down too much, or was there simply not that much going on during the show’s climax? One leaves wondering if some of Watkins’ observations – which are dead-right almost three-quarters of a century later – have lost some of their dramatic edge in this adaptation.

But God certainly is a work worth discovering, both for its entertainment and its historical value. I look forward to seeing the next rare gem that The Mint Theater digs up.

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Can't Buy A Thrill

After the 1957 publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, generations of dreamy, disenfranchised or just plain bored young men (mostly) and women set out to trace his yearning and debauched path across the heart of America. Many even wrote passionately about their experiences, trying to emulate their Beat idols. Yet, despite valiant attempts, the end results often rang hollow. The moment had, simply, passed. Performer, playwright and college instructor Lián Amaris's hero is a more recent figure but no less worshiped in certain circles: the great monologuist Spalding Gray, who, after years of depression, committed suicide in 2004 by likely leaping from the Staten Island Ferry.

In the frequently insufferable Swimming to Spalding, Amaris loosely follows Gray’s “map of experience” through Thailand as described in his acclaimed 1987 film, Swimming to Cambodia. Exactly why Ms. Amaris undertakes this she never fully explains, but we get the distinct impression that, much as the Beat fans idolized Kerouac, Cassady and Ginsberg, she just really, really digs Spalding Gray.

Because in his exotic travels Gray sought out what he called “perfect moments,” so Ms. Amaris must seek hers, too. Gray witnessed an acrobatic girlie show in Patpong. Amaris and her traveling partner, Erin, must do the same. Amaris visits a brothel and even selects a female prostitute like Gray might have. She states that her “mission” is “to participate in this exchange.” Why, again, one wonders? This time we get an explanation—of sorts: “I had an ex-boyfriend who had spent some time as a self-loathing, woman-hating John, so I felt particularly compelled to put something in the world back in balance.” Um, ok.

Ms. Amaris’s homage includes using the same simple props Gray used: a table with microphone, a spiral notebook and a glass of water. Amaris throws in a bottle of Jack Daniels for effect and sits at the very same table Gray used to perform many of his monologues at P.S. 122. A central launching point of Ms. Amaris’ play, like Gray’s, is the legendary “Thai stick.” In Swimming to Cambodia Gray noted how marijuana disagreed with his innate fear and paranoia. Yet, ever hopeful, he decides one more time to try it, at the suggestion of a trusted friend. This time, he reasons, it may be different, and he might for once experience the bliss others describe.

A substantial and particularly hilarious part of Gray’s monologue details his crushed mind-altering hopes. Predictably — at least to his audience — a tremendous wave of anxiety washes over the charmingly neurotic Gray, resulting in horrifying hallucinations and physical illness. And as if that weren’t bad enough, he is scheduled to film his major scene in The Killing Fields the next morning. This is the reason he has come to Thailand in the first place.

Unfortunately, no similar moments exist in Ms. Amaris’s monologue. Whether based in fact or not, her workmanlike piece sounds invented, contrived and lacks anything like Gray’s formidable imagination, humor or wit. Amaris spends quite a bit of time convincing us how coolly true to Gray she is. Yet, instead of smoking the Thai stick, she fakes it. She doesn’t seem to realize the other hints of experiential and cultural fraudulence she carelessly drops. She goes to a girlie bar and “buys” a girl for the evening. Then, to symbolically right the collective wrong of sexual tourism, she decides to give the girl money to do whatever she wants for the night. Yet, the next evening, she and Erin wallow in the attentions of what she repeatedly calls “boy sushi” at a boy bar. At another bar, the pair make a (typically American) show of their relative affluence by buying beers for the ladyboy performers and delight in their exuberant thanks: “Okay, yes, it was extravagant, but since we weren’t renting any boys, what a show to buy all the boys a beer… the beer was cold, but the boys got hotter and hotter.” Privileged girls gone wild!

What could be an obviously more hip twenty-something story? Let’s see, up through this point we’ve got exotic travel, sex tourism, alcohol, marijuana (even if uninhaled), androgyny, and bisexuality. The only thing missing is a mental breakdown. Oh, wait, that comes later, when we find that Ms. Amaris has been involuntarily—and inexplicably—committed for 72 hours to a psychiatric facility. Yet, dang it, whip smart babe that she is (and frequently reminds us), she manages to get out in only 33 hours by outwitting her shrinks.

The best part of Amaris’s monologue occurs when it’s not all about her. She begins a brief relationship with a very troubled Iraqi War veteran she somehow has time to get to know during those 33 hours of psychotherapy. And, though we’ve heard many recent war-related horror stories (frankly, hers is a bit over-the-top, even by those standards), the last third of Swimming to Spalding finally begins to approach what Gray was trying to do in Swimming to Cambodia; that is, weave disparate personal (but not wholly self-absorbed) stories and life experiences into a cohesive narrative that resonates both politically and universally.

Unfortunately, Ms. Amaris loses that promising thread almost instantly and you realize that that was a lucky moment for her…maybe her play’s “perfect moment.” It’s back to her. She’s off to New Orleans for a conference and then back off to Thailand and you realize that this play really does not cohere—and won’t. More than pretentious, with its implicit condescension of its human material, Swimming to Spalding is, in the end, insulting. Despite competent direction by Richard Schechner, the production simply can’t shrug off the poseur quality of Amaris and her tale.

In parts of Swimming to Cambodia, one wonders if Mr. Gray would ever get out of the scrapes in which he finds himself: bouncing, unbelted, in a helicopter 1000 feet up for a quick scene after being promised that it would only rise ten; nearly drowning in untested waters in the Indian Ocean; or hallucinating on Thai sticks in a misguided search of his perfect moment. Danger, and not just personal danger, lurks all around. Yet, in Swimming to Spalding, we sense that Ms. Amaris is simply slumming for hopelessly derivative material. After her tale wraps up, we have no doubt that she’ll be back at her teaching position, fully in control, perhaps even by the very next morning.

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Scenes from a Bad Economy

If catastrophe has provided inspiration to artists at least since the days of Aristotle, in more contemporary times The Flea Theater has provided a forum for plays that respond to contemporary crises (Anne Nelson's The Guys to 9/11, Beau Willimon's Lower Ninth to Hurricane Katrina). With The Great Recession, The Flea takes on the current economic downturn with an evening of ten minute plays by six prominent playwrights (Thomas Bradshaw, Sheila Callaghan, Erin Courtney, Will Eno, Itmar Moses, and Adam Rapp) whose careers have been nurtured by The Flea. Performed by The Bats, the Flea's company of early-career actors, The Great Recession creates not only a collage of stories about economic hardship but a snapshot of how some of the country's most talented playwrights respond, in their work, to crisis. One of the great pleasures of the evening is seeing each playwright's signature style distilled into ten minutes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rapp's has a vigorous fight to the death; Bradshaw's a gang of gleefully shallow people aping real feeling; and Callaghan's a smattering of stream of consciousness dialogue that teeter-totters between wisdom and gibberish.

The plays' scopes range from the national (Eno's Unum cleverly follows dollar bills in transactions to and from the Federal Reserve) to the personal (Moses' Fucked looks at the recession's subtle impact on the trajectory of a young couple's relationship; it also makes really good use of cell phones). Striking a balance between the two, Courtney's Severed infuses multifaceted impacts of the recession with a sweet human exchange. That's perhaps one of the best things plays can offer crisis, and Courtney achieves it with a nod to the role that media has played in narrating the recession. Four actors, splayed across the stage in cut-out frames indicative of monitors, discuss the recession's impact on their lives. Footage for a documentary, their stories comprise a literal backdrop for the interaction at the crux of the play: an artist (nailed by Amy Jackson, who balances quirk with resignation) and a businessman (Ronald Washington, with relaxed certitude) share an unlikely exchange while awaiting their turns before the camera. Director Davis McCallum deftly shifts focus between the dialogue and monologues while the likable ensemble lends warmth to each story, particularly Reynaldo Piniella in the role of an aspiring actor who explains that he's "not even at the status level to be in a show with a big enough of a budget to get cancelled." The line draws big laughs from an audience evidently familiar with the predicament.

Severed is not the only play of the collection to draw upon the recession's impact on the theater world: New York Living tells the story of theater kids swapping romantic partners and dealing with the real estate fallout that ensues. Bradshaw's writing clips over familiar tropes without dwelling in sentiment. His plays are among the funniest, darkest work written today. They are also proving to be among the more difficult to direct. Zany characters spiral out of control and into absurdity, but if played as broad comedy, his calibrated writing loses its satirical bite. Played too straight, on the other hand, it comes across as blandly made for TV. Director Ethan McSweeny here tends toward the former, to mixed results. An enthusiastic quartet of actors (Raul Sigmund Julia, Anna Greenfield, Andy Gershenzon, and Morgan Reis) delivers an engaging performance as individuals but never quite gets on the same stylistic page. Literal bells and whistles (okay, only the bells are literal) go off each time a character says the word recession, accompanied by a light cue, which is more goofy commentary than the script seems to require. Still, the overall effect of the play is a happy one that gets momentum up and keeps it there.

Other plays in the collection take a more dystopic approach. Adam Rapp's Classic Kitchen Timer tells the story of out-of-work Midwestern laborers who come to New York for a kill-or-be-killed social experiment. Hosted by a ghoulishly suave Nick Maccarone, Classic Kitchen Timer positions the recession between those for whom it's a disaster and those for whom it's an opportunity. Sheila Callaghan's Recess, in contrast, is set in a near future in which the Recession has worsened, apparently affecting everyone: nearly a dozen destitute young people share makeshift quarters in a cramped basement, struggling to hold onto sanity and stave off starvation. Director Kip Fagan fails to elicit much in the way of hard edges from the youthful cast, which keeps their familial tenderness from achieving real poignancy. Recess is perhaps the one play where an absence of older characters feels limiting.

On the whole, however, the ensemble of young actors lends the production a feeling of camaraderie. Transitions between plays are undertaken by the ensemble, with as much attention to presentation as to execution, which goes a long way toward creating unity between the six plays. Onstage, the Bats' ease with one another makes a strong case not only for the benefits of the Flea's training program but for the high quality of work that a theater with a resident ensemble can achieve.

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People Who Need People

The four characters in Meg’s New Friend are readily identifiable. They’re upwardly mobile New York thirtysomethings, and more importantly, they’re all smart. Very smart. They are informed, responsible and open-minded. They know exactly where they want to be, and yet have no idea how to get there. Friend, directed by Mark Armstrong, is a story about human folly and intention, written by the Production Company’s playwright-in-residence, Blair Singer. He takes what could be a facile story about finding one’s place in the world and imbues it with plenty of texture. It is fast-paced, funny, incisive and nuanced. It’s hard to tell whether Singer’s writing, a uniformly marvelous ensemble, or Armstrong’s vision is responsible for this polished staging, so perfectly do all of these elements gel in a production at Manhattan Theatre Source that flirts with perfection.

Meg (Megan McQuillan) is a telejournalist who has yet to make good on her ambition, personally or professionally. In addition to getting stuck covering puff pieces, she’s stuck in a three-year relationship with Sam (Michael Solomon), her lawyer boyfriend, that seems to be flickering out. Her best friend, Rachel (Mary Cross), who is Samuel’s sister, is in a similar stasis. Though a successful ER doc, she’s nearing 40 and has not yet married. (It remains a bit unclear how long Rachel, who is about seven years older than Meg and works in an entirely different profession, has been friends with Meg. Did Meg meet Samuel through Rachel, or became friends with Rachel through Samuel?)

Rachel’s current boyfriend, Ty (Damon Gupton), seems like an intriguing prospect, however. He’s smart, funny, and teaches yoga and pilates to at-risk youth. He also happens to be black, a fact that matters more to Meg than it does to Rachel. Meg thinks Ty’s classes would make for a great story. She also makes a mission out of the man. Realizing that she has never had a true male friend, or black friend, Meg decides that Ty should be her first.

Friend unfolds in ways both unexpected and not, but it is far from skin deep. Though gender and race factor into the play, these issues remain on the periphery. And while Friend would work splendidly as sheer entertainment, Singer digs deeper; this is a play about people, not themes, and the playwright makes sharp observations about topics both topical and universal in a completely accessible way.

The crux of Friend is chiefly how people connect and the role language plays as both tool and weapon in their interactions with each other. These characters are hyper-articulate – Meg and Solomon rely on using language for a living – and are masters at the politics of talking, manipulating words to their advantage. Their capacity for language knows no bounds except for those that characters put up themselves.

Singer possesses a finely tuned ear to the rhythms of how people talk, how they hesitate, when they talk fast, and when they cut off their own sentences or those of others. They use words to shield how they feel, to say one thing when they mean something else entirely, to gauge others, even to provoke them. Sometimes, they even use language to lie to themselves. Other times, they go out on a limb and tell the whole truth.

In this way, Singer’s chosen dialogue really matters. Watch from scene to scene as various characters talk to each other, and witness the subtle shifts in power. Different characters drive different scenes. The way Meg and Sam talk to each other feels true, the way a couple who has been together for several years might speak. Sam speaks to Meg in an entirely different way than he does with Rachel – and after he has learned an important lesson, the dynamic in the way he and Meg speak shifts yet again. (Solomon makes smart, subtle choices in his scenes.)

Meg, for her part, shows entirely different parts of herself in the way she interacts with Sam and the way she interacts with Ty, and Singer’s words emphasize how their new friendship deepens over the course of the play. There are carefully calibrated differences in the way Meg and Rachel each talk to Ty as well.

Too often there is a self-awareness that cuts through the work when an actor knows that he or she has good material. Singer’s lines are lightening-fast and razor-sharp, but if his actors know it, their characters never do. They take their material and make it organic; there isn’t a false note to be found in Armstrong’s production. Like Mike Nichols, he is a master at peeling back the layers of ordinary people in ordinary situations while keeping the play fluid. April Bartlett’s scenic design and Isaac Butler’s sound work goes a long way toward achieving this effect as well.

These characters are mirrors, and the cast goes to great lengths to mine the kernels of truth Singer has planted within them. They map the places where each is confident and where they are not. Meg, for example, is beautiful, charismatic, and talented, and yet comes to realize that she has actually engineered some of the roadblocks she has encountered in life, and McQuillan nails this character’s development in an astute, emotionally bare performance. Gupton, too, is outstanding, and makes sense of a complicated character. He shows how a red-blooded male can be giving in some ways and self-serving in others and not necessarily be bad. Cross brings a great duality to her scenes. She’s hysterical and heartbreaking all at the same time.

I have refrained from saying too much about what happens in Friend, though there is plenty to discuss afterward. Singer has crafted a smart play that never once condescends to his audience, and with it, the Production Company proves just how alive Off-Off-Broadway can be.

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Posthumous Collaboration

Shakespeare’s tragedy Troilus and Cressida was neglected for centuries, but its popularity picked up following World War II. The play calls into question the glory of war-making and the constancy of love with bitter irony, both attitudes that would have been out of fashion before World War I but slowly gained ground after the massive conflicts in the first half of the 20th century. The play affords a host of outstanding male roles, particularly those of Ulysses and Pandarus, as well as debates on the nature of time and honor. Still, Classic Stage Company’s artistic director Brian Kulick has opted not to stage Shakespeare’s play intact. Rather, he has blended it with The Iron Age, a forgotten play by Thomas Heywood, author of A Woman Killed with Kindness, as well as plays on the ages of gold, silver, and brass. It proves, on the whole, a canny experiment. One is reminded that Shakespeare’s contemporaries had some impressive writing chops, and the opening scene in which Craig Baldwin’s silver-tongued, passionate Paris seduces Tina Benko’s Helen in the tent of Menelaus (Luis Moreno) in Sparta is a compelling example of Heywood’s skill: “I want your lips to help me make a kiss,” he tells her.

Swiftly, though, Kulick’s adaptation joins “the princes orgulous, their high blood chaf’d” on the Scamander Plain outside Troy, and Shakespeare takes over. In Troilus and Cressida the lines are delivered by a Prologue, but Kulick gives them to Thersites, the scabrous hanger-on whose mantra is “War and lechery, war and lechery!” Fans of the Bard may lament the loss of key elements of his play —gone missing are Cassandra and Nestor, for instance, as well as the wily Pandarus and the marvelous scene in which Helen and Paris toy with him, demanding he sing for her — yet the result of the twinned works is a successful overview of the whole Trojan War, from Helen’s abduction to the famous gift horse.

The look is spare and modern. Oana Botez-Ban has dressed the male actors in kneeboots, sleeveless T's and Mao jackets, and slacks with suspenders, all black. The Greeks are bearded, the Trojans clean-shaven. The effect is timelessness, though one wishes Botez-Ban had expanded Helen’s wardrobe. Is it likely that the siren who launched the war and for whom so much had been sacrificed would still be wearing the same frock seven years after her abduction?

Simplicity extends to the playing area, a large sand pit over-canopied initially with red, and then with white. It works well as a battlefield where the forces clash, sometimes with staffs, sometimes with shields. Shakespeare ends with the death of Hector and Troilus cursing Pandarus, who foresees his coming painful death. Heywood takes the story beyond, showing the killing of Troilus and the competition for Hector’s armor. The latter gives Bill Christ’s hulking but childlike Ajax some good speeches, including a lament after losing to the crafty, hair-splitting Ulysses. For his part, Steven Skybell as the mercenary Ithacan delivers his own character's famous speeches on degree and time with a riveting aplomb.

Satisfying though the adaptation is, it’s marred by some awkward directorial decisions. Primary among them is that Patroclus, Achilles’ lover — “his masculine whore,” as Thersites bluntly puts it — is played by the lithe, slender and definitely female Xanthe Elbrick, who, even with a tattoo and a dose of swagger, is unconvincing as a man whose occupation is war (though she is splendid as Andromache later on). The gender-bending makes nonsense of the hint of camp that Dion Mucciacito suggests in his slightly fey Achilles, and it muddles the whole issue of sexual preference that is clearly part of Shakespeare's and Homer's stories.

As for Thersites, self-described as a wrinkled, diseased hunchback, he’s no such thing; the vigorous Steven Rattazzi plays him in the pink, with a lot of growling insults, and not a hint that his spite may be due to being abused for his infirmities.

The production also lessens the importance of Troilus and Cressida, and given the actors involved, that’s not a bad thing. Neither Finn Wittrock’s Troilus nor Dylan Moore’s Cressida — a character not in The Iliad at all, but rather one created by Chaucer — seem rooted in anything but the 21st century. Their inflections and body movements are so modern as to be jarring, and their passion becomes a distraction from the main event, Ulysses’ attempt to get Achilles out of his tent and Patroclus’s arms and into battle against Hector. Nonetheless, one feels inclined to applaud Kulick’s conception of the story. It’s a fascinating, resonant examination of the high cost of war and the flawed humans that conduct it.

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She Like Girls: A Cry for Consciousness

The senseless hate crime that ended the life of twenty-one year-old Matthew Shepard may have put a face on violence against people in the LGBT community, but it in no way ended such discrimination. A Wikipedia search reveals more than 40 known fatalities in similar situations in the following eleven years. The recent release of the book Remembering Matthew, written by his mother, Judy, honors her son’s legacy and serves as a reminder that the fight for compassion over cruelty is a fight still being waged.

The upcoming She Like Girls is a similar plea for tolerance. This Working Man’s Clothes Production, premiering at the Ohio Theater on December 3, is written by Chisa Hutchinson. The playwright tells the story of Kia Clark (Karen Eilbacher), an African-American teenager who happens to be gay. As her relationship with inner-city high school classmate Marisol Feliciano (Karen Sours) matures, the couple find themselves facing increasingly hostile treatment from their peers. Though the play itself has fictional elements, Girls is inspired by actual events.

“What drew me to telling this particular story is the fact that on the one hand you see this story all the time on stage, but on the other you never see it on stage,” Hutchinson said. “I just mean that it's a regular love story, but the love is between people who are conspicuously underrepresented in theater.”

And yet, Hutchinson avows, her play is universal: “Everyone knows what it's like to discover love.”

The story of Girls is harrowing, to be sure, but Working Man’s Clothes has a history of unflinching shows, including To Nineveh (a 2006 NY IT Awards winner for Best Play), Many Worlds, and Penetrator. The company, whose artistic council consists of Adam Belvo, Darcie Champagne, Jared Culverhouse, Terry Jenkins, and Jake Platt, prides itself on putting on productions that never compromise, works that have something to say. And it’s clear that these passionate players have a lot to say about this show.

She Like Girls has a great human story at its heart, namely, that of the blooming love relationship between Kia and Marisol,” co-star Adam Belvo said, “but more importantly, it’s about how this relationship affects the surrounding community. WMC has always found ways to find the human elements in shows and bring them to life. Here you have two inner city girls who, in spite of a generally disapproving community and monumental hardships surrounding their choice, decide to choose each other, love, and self-actualization instead of hiding behind what society and their community tell them is ‘right’ when it is so obviously wrong for them.”

Is the company worried about finding an audience for such hard-hitting material? “There is no dancing around facts, a girl was murdered,” Champagne, said of the events that constitute Girls. “The play is difficult, [but] we love it, we salivate for it. We love the challenge. When we read something and it moves us, then it's on for us-- we operate from a very visceral, emotional place.

“I am so over entertainment for entertainment's sake,” Champagne continued. “Escapism is just being too lazy to be held accountable. I know that may sound harsh, but we see the world around us and want to try to influence it or reflect back somehow. If you come to see this play, it will leave an impression. You will think about it later. To me, that makes it relevant.”

“There are still incidents of hatred and misunderstanding that continue to plague gays and those with sexual preferences that fall outside of relationships involving ‘one man, one woman,’” Belvo said. “The show brings to life the story of someone coming to terms with who she is, and becoming this person without being ashamed or afraid, which is always an important life lesson to be learned and repeated, no matter what the circumstances are.”

Director Jared Culverhouse agrees that the show is not only timely, but also accessible. “I grew up as an only child with a single mom in a welfare household and I think the way that this poor community is represented [in the play] is honest and human. The play isn't about being poor or being gay or being young, it’s about dealing with what you've got and trying to make the best out of what you have. Too many plays that take place in a poor community only focus on the negative aspects. This play may deal with an unhappy subject, but it's written with a smile on its face.”

Smiles may help, but Hutchinson acknowledges that she definitely met resistance when trying to get her play off the ground. “It's been hard convincing them that I'm not trying to convert them or get them to be okay with homosexuality. I'm just trying to get them to be okay with people, she said. “Fortunately, this play comes with a very loving and supportive community attached. Not just the LGBT community, but a community of artists and activists and other humans who just really like the play and want to see it evolve. Many of them are coming to this production and they're going to see how kick-ass WMC is and spread the word.”

Belvo agreed: “Fighting against adversity plays a major role in this script, something I feel WMC handles well and excels in putting on stage.”

Girls may have found a proper home in Working Man’s Clothes, but the whole company had difficulty keeping its house. The Ohio’s literal lease on life is in constant question. “Spaces are really hard to come by nowadays,” Champagne explained. “Real estate in the theater world is rough right now and so many theaters are closing. It's insane to me that even The Ohio Theater is in danger of shutting down – it’s one of the last great theaters in this city. It's a sad state of affairs.”

Nonetheless, the company has not lost focus on the main task at hand, namely, shedding light on the human cost of ignorance and intolerance. “The biggest challenge has been balancing the beauty of a life with the violent tragedy that ended it,” Jenkins said. He hopes that Girls will foster awareness of the “impact hate can have or has had on human life, which will hopefully instill in the audience an awareness of the consequences of complacency, an awareness that will motivate them to act.”

“I hope people are able to come away with a greater understanding of and respect for the hardships young people face in coming to terms with identity questions, specifically their sexuality,” Belvo said. “Also how communities deal with these issues, from the perspective of parents, teachers, and peers. Most importantly, that issues of violence and discrimination against the LGBT community are not a thing of the past, that these problems continue to plague us. We need to be vigilant in helping to end them.”

Perhaps Culverhouse sums up Girls’ appeal best: “The wonderful thing about this play is that it deals with real people,” he said. “To me, as a director, there is no subject more relevant than the human condition.”

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New Friend of Production Company Presents True Test of Self

Most actors thrive on playing a diverse array of characters. Roles that force them to stretch. Roles that challenge them. Roles that require them to question the inner recesses of someone entirely different from who they are.

So what happens when an actor is cast in the juicy role of…herself?

That is exactly what has happened to Megan McQuillan, the actress who plays the title role in Meg’s New Friend, written by Blair Singer and mounted by The Production Company. Well, not exactly. McQuillan doesn’t portray herself, per se; she plays Meg, a local New York television features reporter who realizes that, in this current environment of hope and change, none of her friends are African-American. The tide turns when she encounters the African-American boyfriend of her best friend. So how much of Meg the actress overlaps with Meg the character?

“I think the character of ‘Meg’ and I talk and think alike in many ways; we share the same sense of humor and I think we could probably play twins, we look so similar!” joked McQuillan. However, the actress got serious, explaining that she sees her character as someone distinct from herself. “I think the mistake would be for me to approach this as ‘playing myself.’ She's not me, and I'm doing the same kind of work I would do on any role – finding out what's driving her, why she does what she does. At the same time, though, the language feels great in my mouth. It feels familiar in a way. That's really fun to work on.”

McQuillan credits Singer for crafting a role that feels so real and so rich. “The story itself is drawn wholly from Blair's creative mind,” McQuillan explained. And while Meg the character may be lifelike, the life reflected does not belong to the actress. There is a thick line between the two Megs. “In real life, I myself have a really diverse group of awesome friends, and a very happy romantic relationship, so [what happens in the play] is purely fiction.”

“Audience members aren't really playing off any knowledge of the ‘real Meg,’” director Mark Armstrong said. “Which is not to say that the role doesn't tap into things she does especially well as an actress, because it certainly does.”

McQuillan and Singer first worked together in another Production Company work, last year’s The Most Damaging Wound (also directed by Armstrong). “Blair talked to me last winter, right after we finished working on Wound, about a script he was working on,” she said. “The lead character was named Meg, but he assured me that it wasn't really ‘me’ me.”

Friend is not the first time that Singer has written a play in which an actor was called upon to play himself. In his last work, Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas, which recently ended a run at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse, Emmy-nominated actor Modine also played a fictitious version of himself.

This endeavor, however, required less in the way of research. Singer said that he was very impressed by McQuillan. “Meg is a real talent, very confident, beautiful, and also vulnerable,” the playwright explained. “I committed to create a character for her since I knew where I could stretch her. I wanted to create a role worthy of her talent and really push her.” After a pause, Singer added: “This play definitely pushes her.”

Singer stresses that the character of Meg really is just that, not a reflection of the actress. He knows very little of her personal life, the details of which never surface in Friend. “After my initial picturing of her in the show, the character just took off,” he said. “She gets the rhythms of the character, the humor, the self-deprecation. I knew [the character] wasn’t going to cry, she wasn’t going to be a victim.” Singer is also quick to point out that McQuillan took ownership of the role. “There was some resistance in the room,” Singer confessed to watching McQuillan make the namesake role her own. Regarding some of the choices she made, “sometimes I saw them differently.”

In fact, if the character of Meg is true to any real life individual, it is actually that of the playwright, not the star. “Though I’m very happy with my life,” Singer, who is married and has a young daughter, admitted, “certain things could always be better,” citing his own career trajectory as an example. “Some things have gone my way, and some have not. I thought Meg [the character] was an interesting vessel to channel my thoughts about…wanting to be better at life, professionally, personally. Meg [the actress] was open to that exploration.”

It should be said that Friend is no one-woman show. The cast also includes Mary Cross, Damon Gupton, and Michael Solomon, who also shared the stage with McQuillan in Wound. “It's spectacular fun to be sharing the stage with this company of actors as well,” McQuillan said. “Talk about talent!”

The company has worked hard to ensure that their show is accessible to people of any name. Singer developed the play over the last year, refining Friend over the course of several readings. It was even part of MCC’s Playlabs series last spring. “The MCC reading was pretty special. There was a warm audience, and the feedback from that night was super positive,” McQuillan said.

Who knows? Maybe there’s a little Meg in all of us.

Meg’s New Friend plays at Manhattan Theatre Source from Nov. 29 through Dec. 20. For more information, please visit http://www.productioncompany.org/index.html.

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Pint-sized Heroine, Gallons of Fun

It would be tempting to say that Alan Ayckbourn’s new play is one of his best or one of his most innovative, but his plays have been so successful and varied over the last 35 years that such a statement isn’t saying much. Rather say that My Wonderful Day, arriving here as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, shows the 70-year-old playwright still at the peak of the comic brilliance that he has displayed for more than three decades. The title refers to the homework essay for Winnie, almost 9, who is being kept out of school because of some mild hoarseness. But her mother, Laverne (Petra Letang), has brought Winnie with her to a house-cleaning job. Laverne’s husband has left her, and she is almost ready to deliver another child, but she’s upbeat and confident nonetheless. As Winnie sits quietly by, she observes and records the strange behavior of the adults she encounters.

And the events of the day? Well, there's the grumpy homeowner Kevin (Terence Booth), a TV star who is on the outs with his wife, Paula. After a violent argument the night before—according to Laverne, the kitchen “looks like they were hurling food”—Paula has taken French leave. Speaking of French, it’s also Tuesday, and Winnie has to practice learning the language by using it at all times—it’s Laverne’s dream to take her children back to her ancestral home, Martinique. Consequently, Kevin thinks Winnie doesn’t understand English.

The confusion extends to Kevin’s go-to guy and former best man, Josh, who turns up after it’s discovered that Paula has sabotaged a marketing DVD for Kevin’s business. Why would the absent Paula do such a thing? Well, it may have to do with Kevin’s assistant, Tiffany (Ruth Gibson), a bouncy, warm-hearted redhead in a miniskirt whose office skills may not be her best asset. All three say things in front of Winnie that they shouldn’t say and that Winnie dutifully scribbles down for her essay.

Because Winnie has to be quiet, much of the play is built on physical comedy, and Ayckbourn’s direction of it is superb, evoking the feel of silent films. Every time Winnie turns to record something in her notebook, you’ll chuckle. There’s a scene when the starving Josh—there’s no food in the house—sees Winnie eating a cookie from her backpack and wants her to share the other that he knows she has. Closer and closer he inches his chair, salivating and wheedling, before finally making a grab for the backpack.

Ayckbourn also knows the way adults behave with children, and vice versa, and the verbal humor arises accordingly: Tiffany tries to entice the uninterested Winnie into watching the DVD with “It’s a commercially mass-produced copy of a corporate video labeled Fantacity!” And as Tiffany watches it (the effective lighting by Mick Hughes places the audience under a flickering big-screen TV), Winnie fidgets, balances a pencil on her upper lip, and slouches in her chair. It doesn’t sound like much, but Ayesha Antoine’s tour de force performance as Winnie is breathtaking. Antoine, who is 28, has nailed the psyche and movements of a 9-year-old, and is utterly convincing. And her facial expressions evoke the genius of Buster Keaton.

In plays like Absurd Person Singular, Things We Do for Love, and his quintessential The Norman Conquests, which had a hit revival on Broadway this year, Ayckbourn has shown he is a master of wringing comedy from the misery and infidelities of the British bourgeoisie.

Here, Paul Kemp’s divorced, disheveled Josh is probably an alcoholic, and he chokes up thinking about his daughter Amber. Tiffany has a monologue about being sent to boarding school and "lonely love" that explains her need to connect to the child Winnie and possibly her attraction to the older Kevin. It’s also inevitable that Kevin’s affair will be discovered (by the late-arriving Paula, embodied by Alexandra Mathie as a formidable mix of starch and bark). As in the greatest comedy, tragedy is close by.

Roger Glossop provides unremarkable, sterile furniture for kitchen, office and living room, and Hughes supplies mood lighting for each, with hallways delineated by lozenges of light as characters walk through them. The simplicity is apt, since the young Winnie wouldn’t pay much attention to such things anyway, and it helps to see the strange surroundings sketchily through her eyes. It also keeps the emphasis on the situations and the actors, who seize their opportunities with relish. What Kemp does with the line, “I’ve known violent women,” is priceless. And the final moments, played in silence, are pitch-perfect. My Wonderful Day more than keeps the promise of its title.

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Singles in the City

Boyfriends may come and boyfriends may go, but the dating game will last forever, as will works dedicated to the crusade. Kiss Me on the Mouth, Melanie Angelina Maras’ paean to looking for love, fits squarely within this rubric. Yet even with the addition of another playwright – the smart Stephen Adly Guirgis directs Mouth -- this play still feels somewhat unrealized. Amy (Megan Hart) and Christina (Aubyn Philabaum) are lifelong friends navigating the New York dating circuit. One brief scene serves as prologue before each woman attaches herself to a man of varying commitment and credibility, so what we initially learn about the two female protagonists is limited. Amy is the guilt-ridden one of the two, citing Mother Theresa as a hero; Christina, on the other hand, is independently wealthy, likely alcoholic, and far more experienced.

Before Amy can get herself to a nunnery, though, both women have hitched their wagons to troubled trains. Andre (an amusing Troy Lococo), a Latin lover, manages to seduce Amy with his transparent, if humorous, lothario ways. It’s clear this relationship is going nowhere, but it takes Amy, who I assume has indeed dated in the past, far too long to realize this.

Amy eventually becomes a supporting player, however, as Christine’s relationship emerges as Mouth’s A storyline. She starts dating Gabriel (Ken Matthews), a tortured artist prone to hiding his love away. Their relationship looks like it might have potential at first – they take things slow, Christine opens up to him. As the play moves along, though, both Christine and Gabriel seem to do an about-face, making various repeated choices designed to self-sabotage.

Maras’ structure, still in somewhat raw form, has benefits and drawbacks. On the plus side, Philabaum and Matthews get the opportunity to dig deep into their characters. Philabaum manages to justify her character’s need for gratification by suggesting that a neglectful upbringing has left her deeply empty inside. It’s a harrowing portrayal that emerges as the evening’s star turn. Matthews also imbues Gabriel with massive insecurity; he puts his art before his relationships but recognizes that he does so at his own peril. We see why a relationship between Christine and Gabriel might actually work – and while it can’t.

But we cannot learn about all four characters at once in this play. Some need to be established, while others provide revelation. Maras’ play needs to either focus on Christine and Gabriel’s relationship, or on Amy and Christine’s close-but-complicated friendship, but it currently straddles the line. Christine, we learn, has seduced past boyfriends of Amy's, and Amy has known about this duplicity. So why do they remain friends? It might be best for Maras to have provided more interaction between the two women at the play’s beginning, and fewer scenes involving both of their burgeoning relationships. Somehow, we need to know more about Amy and Christine, even if it means knowing less about Gabriel and Andre (limited as that character is to begin with.) Hart handles her material very capably, but she should have more of it.

This leads into another problem with the play: Guirgis would be wise to use fewer scene changes. There are too many short scenes in Mouth, which breaks the momentum. A show this minimalist shouldn’t require its actors to move one or two pieces of furniture on and off stage constantly. Laurie Helpern’s modern set, paired with Melissa Mizell’s lighting, does the trick just fine.

I like Maras’ voice, and look forward to hearing more from her. Mouth has plenty of potential, it just needs some work - like any good relationship.

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Prepare to be Seduced by Flux's History

Over the past couple of years, Flux Theatre Ensemble has garnered a reputation for excellence in both its production aspects and its choice of material, and so far they have yet to disappoint. The Lesser Seductions of History, written by August Schulenburg and directed by Heather Cohn, is a masterpiece, a glorious gift that they have offered up to the world, specific to one generation but timeless to all in its celebration of life, death, and the choices we make (or are forced to take) to exist in this harsh world. Flux Theatre Ensemble has bitten off a lot this time: No less than the encapsulation of an entire decade into an evening's entertainment. And what a decade it was! The 1960's, a time of intense social change and societal unrest, and one that many people are drawing frightening parallels to in this decade (the Rabbit-hole of Vietnam/Iraq, anyone?). Has Flux Theatre Ensemble bitten off more than they can chew with this one? How can one small group of players dare, as Shakespeare once asked, on such an unworthy scaffold to bring forth so great an object? The answer is, of course, that the play works only if the audience lets these players, ciphers to this great accompt, on their imaginary forces work.

Schulenburg and Flux are no stranger to the works of William Shakespeare, having produced A Midsummer Night's Dream in their season of transformation (Christina Shipp's Bottom will forever be a favorite of mine, no pun intended). It is no surprise, then, that the Bard's influence is sometimes heavily felt in this production. From the dramatic and elevated stakes faced by many of the characters, to the minimalist set considerations, to the passage of time and the framing sequences, together with the almost cinematic cutting back and forth from scene to scene which Shakespeare employed long before anyone had dreamed of the cinema, Lesser Seductions follows in the footsteps of the greatest dramatists that has come before. There may not be much new or original here, but the play is staged and performed so exquisitely, the story told with such style, one is reminded that even the old tales are good ones.

Not everyone will immediately take to the character of History (played by Candice Holdorf and referred to in the program as “One”), who has the unenviable task of presenting both prologue and epilogue, as well as moving the story from one decade to the next. Nevertheless, History plays her part and inexorably marches on into the future, while at the same time offering up Her observations on the past. The play may have worked without this character, but then by whom would we have been seduced, even if only to a lesser degree? The character of One does have a lot of challenges placed upon her, not the least of which includes interacting with the audience at several points, as well as, in another wink at Shakespeare, humbly asking for the audience's applause at show's end in true Puckish style. Candice Holdorf tackles the job with gusto as usual, and deftly goes from wielding ultimate power to serving as the meekest of History's subjects.

The entire cast is admirable, and as this is truly an ensemble, I cannot fail to mention each member. Jake Alexander as Isaac Cohen deftly transforms from a jazz-loving hepcat to a flower-loving Aquarian. Tiffany Clementi excels as Marie Cohen, Isaac's much abused wife, and Isaiah Tanenbaum brings an odd charm to his portrayal of Lee Cohen, Isaac's cousin. Matthew Archambault and Jason Paradine, as Barry and Bobby Tanner respectively, offer delightful performances. Michael Davis plays George Ward, a talented but tortured musician, while Raushanah Simmons plays the part of Martha Ward, George's sister and one of the truly devoted, first to her brother and Christ, then to the Party and the Cause. Ingrid Nordstrom as Anisa Hansen, Christina Shipp as Lizzie Ann Hansen, and Kelly O'Donnell as Tegan Tyrone all deliver startling, sublime performances.

All design elements are well represented with this production, from Lauren Parrish's mood-enhancing lighting design, cast in lots of soft white and cool colors, to Will Lowry's simple yet elegant table and chairs set, perfectly suited to the story requirements. Becky Kelly's costume choices, simple and not overstated, clearly represent the characters depicted. Perhaps the most critical element in a show about a period of history so steeped in aural fixations is the sound, and Asa Wember manages to exceed all expectations. In what is clearly a technically difficult show, Asa's design is always supportive, never overbearing, and suits the action perfectly.

Heather Cohn, as director, combines intelligence, imagination, and wisdom, and tempers all with a modicum of heart. Actors can only be as good as they are allowed to be by their director, and Heather has a great handle on her actors, as well as a distinguishing eye for detail. While all the stars in the Flux firmament shine oh so brightly, Heather Cohn seems to be their North star, giving them guidance, whilst August Schulenburg, in this production anyway, serves as both master architect and heart of hearts to what truly may be their greatest show yet.

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Nothing Rotten Here

Tom Stoppard’s metatheatrical work Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was one of his earliest major successes. Premiering over four decades ago, this alternate perspective on the events of Shakespeare’s Hamlet hit on such themes as death, fate, solitude, and other existential matters, and did so with humor and élan. No wonder it brought him the first of his three Tony Awards for Best Play. What a relief it is then, to see Cat Parker’s well-executed rendering of this masterpiece at T. Schreiber Studio’s Gloria Maddox Theater. Eric Percival and Julian Elfer are the title characters, sent for by the newly crowned King Claudius, though they have little idea as to why. The two pass the time with an epic coin-flipping contest, which, in the absurd fashion that pervades Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz wins 92 consecutive times. This rejection of the laws of probability suggests to the two that they may not be entirely in a world of their own free will, but perhaps “within un-, sub- or supernatural forces.”

This tongue-in-cheek storytelling style pervades the whole show. Though the action portrays what takes place offstage during Hamlet, knowledge of that show is helpful but not mandatory. Claudius manipulates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, childhood friends of Prince Hamlet, to spy and report on him. Hamlet, however, in a rare act of follow-through, outsmarts them and sends them to their deaths. From their vantage point, however, all that they can see is how insane Hamlet’s ranting seems.

Later, after the two characters witness “The Murder of Gonzago,” Hamlet’s play-within-a-play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves on a ship that is supposed to take the prince to England with the troupe that staged the performance. During this voyage, however, they are ambushed by pirates and lose their prisoner before resigning themselves to their fate.

And while Stoppard elevates his title characters to lead status, he also comments on how ultimately insignificant they remain. They exist in their own universe, unable to make sense of much of the world around them, and occasionally confuse their names, suggesting just how interchangeable they appear to audiences. At various points throughout the play, the two characters hit upon sage philosophical truths, only to dismiss or forget them as quickly as they first devised them.

Rosencrantz is blessed by two dazzling performances. Percival and Elfer are outstanding, giving energetic, rich and touching performances and demonstrating a terrific grasp of the cadences of the language (Page Clements is credited as the dialogue coach). Percival makes Rosencrantz a lovable dolt, while Elfer makes Guildenstern the more Type-A of the duo. He devours the role with relish.

Of course, the entire ensemble is to be commended. Erik Jonsun is The Player, a traveling actor, and delivers a stunning turn that hits all the comedic, melancholic and sympathetic notes for which Stoppard’s play so effortlessly strives. Additionally, the other performing actors who make up the acting and troupe and pivotal characters from Hamlet (mere minor characters here, of course), are uniformly excellent.

Parker opts to stage Rosencrantz in the round, which contributes to the sense of incomprehensible chaos the leads share, and moves the dense show quite fluidly. Karen Ledger’s costume design also deserves mention, as does Michael Hagins' authentic fight choreography.

Stoppard used Rosencrantz as a bit of a smokescreen, a palatable way to ask tough, defining questions about the art. What makes a character? What does it take to tell a story adequately and convincingly? The answers are all here in Parker’s production, proof that the playwright’s show is aging just fine.

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Two Hearts That Beat As Two

In real life, a relationship requires two parties being connected to each other in order to work. Onstage, however, three parties must be in sync to portray a successful relationship – the two lovers as well as the audience. Edward and Allison, the two characters whose on-and-off romance provides the heart of Victor L. Cahn’s new play, Embraceable Me, may be able to get under each other’s skin, but they have a much more difficult time reeling the audience in. As envisioned by Cahn, Edward (Scott Barrow) and Allison (Keira Naughton) are really more like chess pieces than characters; the audience is familiar with their story and the moves these two will make. We first meet them at Edward’s New England country house. Several years after college graduation, both have made headway in their respective careers and have moved on with other love interests after an intense but abortive relationship that saw them progress from friends to significant others to exes.

However, a connection remains, even as Allison tells Edward that she has gotten engaged to a man she has known for mere months. It’s clear that Edward, while rarely the aggressor in his interactions, still carries a torch, and that Allison is testing to see if any interest remains. What follows then is a series of flashbacks to the belabored milestones of their relationship, partially reenacted by the two actors, partially dictated directly to the audience. Embraceable documents the stops and starts in their relationship as told in both flashback and narration.

But this whole journey is rather moot. It is a fait accompli that they believe they belong together and will ultimately end up with each other, so the play’s action feels both foreordained and inconsequential. A romantic dramedy such as Embraceable can still survive even if the plot provides short shrift. All that’s needed is convincing chemistry between the two leads.

Unfortunately, in this case, Edward and Allison feel mismatched, due in part to Cahn’s undernourished writing and also in part to the actors on board. Barrow does more heavy lifting. It is a mature performance. Edward is certainly a milquetoast, a vulnerable and passive intellectual, but his portrayer manages to make Edward’s frustration with his parents harrowing in addition to suggesting a normal male sexual appetite lurking beneath his docile exterior. We also get to watch him grow as his scenes continue. While he makes it clear that he would love to live with Allison, he also makes it clear that his life has taught him that he could live with or without her.

Naughton, who has proven her ability to command the stage in such previous shows as Hunting and Gathering and the Rivals, has a more difficult time shading in her character’s subtext here. In comparison to Edward, Allison has to drive the scenes. She asserts herself in scenes as the more driven of the two, but the performance feels too guarded. Several emotional scenes involving a medical scare for herself and the loss of a family member feel threadbare, lacking the digging required in order to portray attendant emotions like fear, weakness, or, most importantly, dependency. Meanwhile, Naughton should have let loose far more in a different flashback scene in which she humiliates Edward in front of his graduate school colleagues out of jealousy.

As a result, though the audience may be told repeatedly of it, they never actually feel a deep bond between Edward and Allison, let alone a love connection. Director Eric Parness seems to have been more engaged with the show’s technical elements, some of which impress more than others. Sarah B. Brown’s set uses the small space of the Kirk Theater effectively, providing several distinct spaces to represent various locations. Nick Moore’s sound design, on the other hand, calls too much attention to itself, distracting more than providing convincing ambient noise. And the transitions between the narration to the audience and the dialogue-driven scenes should be more seamless.

Barrow proves he is certainly a performer to watch, but Embraceable lacks both charm and conviction. I couldn’t help but wonder at show’s end if Edward and Allison stay together because they feel it is their characters’ destiny or simply because there was never anyone else around.

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You Jump, I Jump

The Oldsmobiles may take place on New York’s Manhattan Bridge, but it has nothing to do with cars. Instead, journalist-playwright Roger Rosenblatt’s slight, two-character comedy at The Flea looks at a married couple in their twilight years who have decided to jump into the East River before their bodies – and, perhaps, minds – begin to betray them. Yet, when dealing with two characters (literally) on the edge, it’s best for their play to have some as well. Oldsmobiles is a comedy, but it is hard to tell exactly where Rosenblatt, whose work also includes the eccentric Ashley Montana Goes Ashore in the Caicos, intends for his play to fall on the humor spectrum. Is this merely dry humor, or is it sentimental? Is it a dark comedy, or something more absurd, along the lines of David Lindsay-Abaire? His choices render the play safe and rather hollow, leaving it to director Jim Simpson, The Flea’s founder and artistic director, and his winning cast to shade in some necessary humanity and provide it with some bite.

Nonetheless, Oldsmobiles engenders some additional questions from the onset that linger beyond the show’s curtain call. For instance, though the audience sees only the couple, the Oldsmobiles themselves have opted to turn their demise into a media free-for-all, having contacted the press to alert them to their imminent double suicide. Why would such a seemingly low-maintenance couple turn a personal decision into such a circus? Such commentary about the media’s role in tragedy would likely feel out of place, not to mention redundant in this play.

Not that Rosenblatt even has time to shoehorn that in his barely hour-long play. Instead, we watch as the couple, smartly played by Richard Masur and Alice Playten, snack and reminisce on the bridge as reports and morbid onlookers (including a school field trip) gather below. But their conversation sounds largely inauthentic. They discuss how they met (as Olympic athletes in 1964) and where their children live (or think they do), but these are conversations that couples with the intimacy of decades together don’t need to have; they’re expository, meant to give the audience information, but done in an inelegant way.

These conversations also beget another question. At times, both husband and wife (referred to in the script only as “He” and “She”) have apparent lapses in memory. He forgets that he is retired and misremembers words; She forgets that her son is married. Is this supposed to be a cute gambit? An inside joke the two play on each other? Or is it the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease, a term brought up once but dismissed instantly? Treating that idea with short shrift is a mistake; if it has played a role in their decision to end their lives, that needs to be fleshed out. It also alters the show’s tone, which works best at its more darkly comical (case in point: their stunt draws such a crowd of boats in the water that they run out of river into which they can plunge).

Something unquestionable in Oldsmobiles is that both actors breathe an enormous amount of believability into their roles and their relationship with each other. Masur underplays his part; one gets the impression that there is real frustration underlying his choices, even if we never learn the source. Playten, meanwhile, walks a tougher tightrope, since her character is the one less convinced their choice is the right one. Regardless of Rosenblatt’s material, though, the two are always convincing as a perfect fit of a couple.

I credit Simpson with a large degree of that. His direction is a case of both sense and sensibility. He steers Oldsmobiles clear of melodrama while never ignoring the fact that these are dignified human beings who have made a choice, even if the audience questions how careful their contemplation has been. Jerad Schomer’s smart set, simulating the bridge, also deserves mention.

Oldsmobiles would function better as part of a bigger piece. I would rather see it as one of several segments in a review of Rosenblatt’s oddball work. That way, I would be able to gain a greater understanding of his tone and diversity as a playwright and clarify this view from the bridge.

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Holier Than Thou

“It’s 1401. They don’t burn women anymore!” That’s the funniest of many funny lines in Heidi Schreck’s otherwise quite serious medieval-period Creature. It’s spoken by John Kempe (Darren Goldstein), whose wife, Margery (Sofia Jean Gomez), claims that, among other things, Jesus has appeared to her wearing purple robes. The actors in Creature pull off a monumental feat by convincing us that their characters are relevant not only to the year 1401, but to our world as well.

Margery Kempe actually existed. She lived in Norfolk, England from 1373-1438 and published what many believe to be the first ghostwritten (she was likely illiterate) autobiography in the English language. Part Shakespeare, part Wayne’s World, Creature is a tour de force, complicated, rich and thought provoking on too many levels to count. Ms. Schreck, the 2009 Page 73 playwriting fellow, utilizing familiar and ancient themes like superstition and sacrilege, has woven together an utterly original play, as communicative to our age as to an earlier one.

When we meet her, Margery is a new mother in the midst of a crisis. Uneducated, yet highly intelligent, brimming with desire and imagination, she becomes convinced that demons have possessed her soul and begins acting appropriately wacky. She’s “cured” after her vision of Jesus, but that’s not the end of her strange behavior; in fact, it’s just beginning. Her husband, John, a levelheaded, pragmatic brewer, adores her for her physical beauty and can’t understand why she won’t be content as a simple housewife. Feeling sinful and convinced that she’s answering God’s call, Margery avoids her husband’s amorous advances and seeks to know her creator, meeting, along the way, two holy men who quickly become enamored with her. One of them is a devil.

Despite weaknesses of the flesh, Margery aspires to join her heroes: women recognized as visionaries and sought after for their holiness. Audacious in her demonstrations, Margery prays loudly in public and boldly wears white (considered heretical for married women). If Margery were alive today, she would have her own reality show. She’s in a competition, trying to outdo others renowned for their saintliness. All the while, the countryside buzzes with talk of witches. Local women use animal bones to cast spells on their enemies. The authorities are burning “lollards:” those who believe that the church is an unnecessary conduit to salvation. Margery skirts dangerously close to accusations of witchcraft.

Yet, Margery is often hilariously naïve, believing that she can simply will herself onto the path of sainthood. Learning that a contemporary, Juliana of Norwich, has followers who bring her food, she states to her advisor, Father Thomas (Jeremy Shamos): “I’d like to live in a little house and have my followers bring me food. Though it depends on what kind of food they bring. I love honey cakes.” Margery even seeks advice from Juliana (Marylouise Burke) herself, an old woman who has lived in one room her entire life, meditating and avoiding temptations of the senses. Juliana has become something of a legend, and basks in her fame, even signing certificates that one can use as protection from accusations of heresy.

Temptations, for Margery, come in many forms, including that of a devilish, stuttering young man (Will Rogers, oddly playing almost the same character he played last year in Edward Bond’s Chair) who follows Margery to her praying spot and strikes up a conversation with her, ultimately attempting, in a roundabout way, to seduce her into hell. Though she (barely) resists his overtures, she is tainted.

All the actors are outstanding, but Mr. Shamos turns in a particularly strong performance as Father Thomas, a repressed middle-aged priest who at first disbelieves Margery and tries to shrug her off. This changes when, appealing directly to his vanity, the manipulative Margery mentions that she has spoken with Jesus about him. Reeling him in like a fish, she tells him that God is pleased with his servitude and that he will die in seven years, a good man.

Ms. Gomez’s performance is utterly convincing as the tortured and possibly mentally ill Margery, moving in the blink of an eye from hysteria to sadness and back again. Through her, Ms. Schreck examines what it means to be “holy,” showing the difficulty of separating the earthly from the otherworldly. Can someone ever truly claim to be “pure?”

Set designer Rachel Hauck and costume designer Theresa Squire work beautifully together to paint a convincing period piece, shrouded in darkness. The Ohio Theater’s almost cathedral-like space, spookily dotted with candles, is the perfect place to house Creature. Veteran director Leigh Silverman wisely moves out of the way of these extremely talented actors—all of whom understand exactly what they’re doing with this complex script— and lends a light but deft touch to the proceedings.

Creature does everything right, managing to be historically fascinating, loaded with depth and entertaining, all at once. I recommend it to anyone who relishes compelling new theater.

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Theater of the Fantabulous

Before I start I’ll just say this - my review might be tainted by the fact that the star of the show kissed me on the lips in the last scene… We ask ourselves what our goals as theater artists are. What do people expect us to do in this day and age? Some want entertainment, others look to be moved. Some come to watch an idea processed in a new way, to return for an evening to something concrete and physical in the midst of the digital age. Aristotle said theater should “delight and instruct.” Others have said that a play should drive people to political action. Or just to join a few people’s consciousnesses for a couple hours in a space – to create community. Nowadays it seems that often an audience wants to see an artist's process, to watch him work through his issues in front of them. In The Lily’s Revenge Taylor Mac and his grandiose crew of 40 performers and 80 collaborators provide all of the above.

They have plenty of time to do it, too, in the five hours (not a typo) of this fantabulous saga. What allows for these five hours to not feel long is the sensible way in which the evening is structured. There are three long intermissions, with activities, a dance floor and a bar. There are five different parts to the play, each helmed by a different director, and as such a new artistic feel every time you come back into the theater to watch the next part. Each part is of a slightly different genre, ranging from a poetic Theater of Flowers (perhaps a nice definition for the entire evening), to dance theater, to video, to Japanese-influenced morality tale.

What makes it all gel is that it never feels like high art. While each one of the beautiful, outrageous costumes (reason enough to come to HERE Arts Center to see the show) is a work of art by itself (design by Machine Dazzle), and the musical accompaniment (composed by Rachelle Garniez), the singing of the actors, and the movement of the dancers are all graceful and strong, Mac makes sure to keep his crew firmly on the level of his spectators. Even when the play addresses grand philosophical questions – the basic setup of the plot is a contemporary comment on Heidegger – it does so with an American simplicity that keeps everyone feeling included. How could you not when the actors’ dressing room turns into a disco at every intermission? Or when you walk into the bathroom and find Taylor serenading you with a ukulele as you urinate?

Theatricality aside, the evening deals with the question of marriage. The writer, it seems, has struggled with this one, so much so that he needed five hours to express his feelings about it. In one of the Kyogens, or intermission activities, audience members are invited to let their rage out on a specific marriage related issue. They are handed a stick and get to pound an inflated rubber doll with name-tags like “gay marriage,” until the doll gives in and stops trying to rise back to her feet.

The story the play tells is about a lily (played by Taylor Mac with his usual magnetism) who decides to become a man in order to marry a woman. The woman (Amelia Zirin Brown) gives him the course of the play to succeed or she will marry her other suitor (Frank Paiva), a plain heterosexual male that sings the memorable line: “I think of pornographic images when I make love to you.” The lily then goes on an epic journey, meets other flowers, makes her way to Ecuador and all the way back to the woman, only to realize she (or rather he at this point) would rather not.

Mac makes his peace with marriage by the end of the play, but the demons must be exorcized along the way. The third part of the play, directed and choreographed by Faye Driscoll, is a powerful wedding nightmare expressed brilliantly through the movement of six talented actor/dancers. This part brings back a character from the first part of the play, the villain of The Lily’s Revenge, Curtain, the God of Longing and the son of Time. In this scene Curtain (a delightfully Wonderland James Tigger Ferguson) shrinks from an entire wall to a red napkin (barely) covering his penis.

The Curtain does make a resurgence in the final part of the play, but only to lose to Lily’s here and now, as the entire cast gathers on the stage to make merry, and Taylor Mac himself appears, this time not as a flower, and speaks to us earnestly as a person (if you’re lucky you might get kissed too - sit in the front row if you want it, further back if you don’t). Then this five hour community disperses, and we each carry our little thoughts and joys away.

The Lily’s Revenge is the type of show that New York City makes, and makes New York City. Just as Mr. Mac is paying tribute in his work to the downtown greats of the 1970’s Theater of the Ridiculous, so will theater artists in this city’s future be building upon his theatrical contributions for years to come.

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The War at Home

Down Range, written by Jeffrey Skinner and directed by Trish Minskoff, is not a traditional war story. This is not a play solely about the glory – or about the horrors – of life on the battlefield. Rather, it lets the war experience unravel from the homefront perspective, presenting its audience with the effects of war on military families. The play poignantly depicts returning war veterans and abandoned army wives and widows, reminding us all that the pain and suffering wreaked by war are not contained by the borders of any war zone. The story moves back and forth through time. Early on, we learn that Doc, one of the two soldiers that the play focuses on, has died. Frank, his best friend and fellow soldier, must accompany his remains home. On the journey, Frank is visited by Doc’s ghost, who pulls him out of this present moment and back into the past. From here, the piece operates as a memory play, showing us war scenes and domestic scenes alike. The central emphasis for the play is the bond of friendship that develops between the two men and their respective wives.

The play is marked by moments of great poetry. In particular, the direct audience address monologues from Doc and Frank about the war are moving. Disappointingly, the piece is a bit inconsistent; some of the “real life” scenes of domestic bliss and marital drama do not ring as true as the more abstract poetic moments.

The lighting, designed by John Tees, III, is worthy of note in its own right – it is evocative, creating a mood for the piece from the moment the audience enters the theater space and sustaining an all-encompassing theatrical experience from there. The light cues smoothly take us in and out of each moment, making the slippages through time seem natural and effortless. The lighting design also works beautifully with the compelling set, which is neither altogether realistic nor entirely minimalistic. The set suggests where the characters are but maintains a war motif throughout. These individuals are never free from the war, no matter where they go.

The story could benefit from some streamlining. The plot, centering on a fairly complex narrative about the intersections of these four lives, could be simpler. The events are told in and out of linear time, as previously mentioned, which is, on occasion, difficult to follow. The performances are all fine; of note is Steve Sherman who plays the CAO, a character not directly involved in the social drama of the two couples. Sherman effectively evokes the strict rules and regulations of a life governed by military dictates in the way he enacts his duties on stage with precision and concentration.

Despite some flaws, however, Down Range is poignant and relevant as well as provocative and effective. This is a play about the realities of military life and about the human effects of war. The final scene is both shocking and touching and it leaves an impression that will not soon be forgotten. This is important theater; it carries reminders about what war is like for those who truly live it everyday. It is a story that deserves to be heard.

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Estrogenius Festival Turns Ten As It Celebrates Female Voices

A host of theater festivals around the city spotlight various groups, from fight artists to Latin American performers. The Estrogenius Festival, to provide another example, celebrates female artists, and is among the more successful festivals of its kind – it is currently in its tenth annual season.

Estrogenius was founded by Fiona Jones, who is also one of the founding partners of manhattantheatresource. “I kept looking at all the under-utilized female talent around me,” she says, “and felt I had to do something about that.” The festival’s mission is to provide creative opportunities to female artists, ranging from the emerging to the seasoned professional, in a variety of disciplines.

Jen Thatcher, co-executive producer of the festival, agrees that Estrogenius exists “to celebrate the under-served voices of female artists and to encourage men to explore interesting, complex female voices and narratives.” The first festival, in 2000 ran for two weeks, consisting of a program of ten short plays, music, and a visual art exhibit. Jones “has inspired all of us and provided a woman-friendly artistic environment in which we could all work,” said Kathleen O’Neill, who directed a show in Week Three of this year’s festival, and has worked with Estrogenius since its inaugural season.

By now, however, Estrogenius has evolved into a five-week-long festival. Each of the first four weeks features a different program of five plays each. The final week is the Estro Encores week, which features audience favorites from the first month of the festival.

In addition to the short plays, there are also evenings of Sola Voce (solo pieces), a visual art show, pre-show music on the Windowbox stage, two evenings of GirlPower (featuring works written and performed by teen actors), two performances of Women in Motion (a dance component), and two evenings of Voices of Africa, which benefits Nigerian girls’ education. Voices of Africa is part of a collaboration with the Peace Corps Niger, the Young Girls Scholarship Program & Pangea, in which New York area performers recite poetry, music and prose of Nigeria. All proceeds from Voices of Africa go to the Young Girls Scholarship Program. Thus far, Estrogenius has sponsored the education of 27 girls in Niger, a west African country where the literacy rate among women is less than 8%.

Thatcher explained the submission process. “We accept open submissions from around the world. For the short plays, we typically receive hundreds of submissions.” Reader panels of at least three people then review the submissions, score them, and present their recommendations to the producers. The recommended pieces – which Thatcher says she considers the Estrogenius “finalists” – are then reviewed by each week’s producer and assistant producer, who make the final selection of plays to be included in their week of programming, “with an eye to offering a smorgasbord of styles and themes in each week,” according to Jones.

From the top recommendations, each producer chooses five plays for her specific week. “Every submission is carefully considered and every submitting artist gets a response,” said Jones. “We are frequently complimented on our rejection letters, if you can believe it!” This year saw 200 submissions, with 50 finalists and, ultimately, 20 selected pieces. According to Jones, over the years they have had submissions from 35 states and five countries.

In the spirit of diversity, Estrogenius is also no Lilith Fair tour. “Men are a huge part of Estrogenius,” Thatcher said. “In the first place, there are tons of male acting roles. Secondly, each year since the festival’s inception, we have had at least one play written by an ‘honorary chick,’” she went on to say. “We love the fact that there are men out there writing great parts for women and we want to be sure they’re encouraged!”

“Since 75% of the professional theater in the United States is driven by men, we felt it was important to encourage men to explore their female voices,” Jones added. She said that the only distinction is that “men have to submit material appropriate to a celebration of female voices, while plays by women can be about anything.” Jones also explained that the panel reviews submissions on a gender-blind basis. There are three short plays penned by men in this year’s lineup.

More than gender, it seems clear that the one common thread among all Estrogenius participants is the passion they all share. O’Neill cites the camaraderie and connection to the “artistic development of so many people” as the aspects she loves best about it.

“In every Estro festival there have been the exquisite moments that only live theater can give, where the immediacy of the actor transports the audience,” O’Neill continued. “What a celebration! It is what New York City is all about for all of us.”

More information about the Estrogenius festival can be found here: http://www.estrogenius.org/estro/index.html

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Now Ya See It, Now Ya Don’t

Nietzsche once said, “Love is blind; friendship closes its eyes.” In Disillusioned, a new play by Susan Hodara, we find a little bit of both. The touching two-act drama explores the decade-or-so-long relationship between a solitary aging magician, Bernie, and a tween-age runaway orphan, Jane, who latches onto him, and whom he ultimately legally adopts. As the play opens, Jane often plays hooky and lingers around Bernie’s building, which contains his magic shop, workshop, and living quarters, begging to become his onstage assistant. However, while seemingly a natural performer, Jane is nervous and suffers from stage fright, so Bernie suggests she take on the persona of a blind girl, and they work out routines for her wearing dark glasses, so that she can feel more comfortable by no longer “seeing” the audience. The ruse works, they start to become a team (in more ways than one), while Jane begins to live her life, at least to outsiders, as though she were blind. The moody tone of the piece, with direction by Noël Neeb, does evoke the feeling of their private world within a world, echoed in the simple space containing just a few key set pieces and familiar magic props, created and stage managed by Andi Cohen and Dalia Garcia. Most of the action centers on Bernie and Jane, and a deep buffer grows between that safety zone and their audiences (and later, the whole world) beyond. The use of prerecorded voiceover sequences also elicits a bit of distance from the immediate action, and elegantly allows space for some of the play’s deeper narratives to come through. While their relationship is well-drawn, ranging from that of (switchable) parent-child roles, to partners, to intimate companions, it's not completely clear how they actually relate to their audiences, as those scenes are not shown. Are they really master showmen, delighting and amazing whoever comes to watch? Or are they just barely drawing a crowd? Certainly as the property and Bernie’s health decline, (and the business in general?), the latter seems a safer assumption.

The magic tricks, lighting effects (designed by Jamie Roderick), and slight-of-hand flourishes are colorful touches in a piece that at times could risk becoming maudlin. Thankfully, there’s some humor and distraction to possibly prepare viewers for the more tragic moments, even though the second act begins to feel overwhelmingly depressing with no signs of a reprieve until the almost-too-late final moments. Also towards the end, it becomes a bit unclear just how many years have passed, and we wonder if we’re now witnessing a full-out Grey Gardens-type of scenario. In Act 2, as Bernie continues to falter, Jane’s heretofore affected blindness has unfortunately become a reality, but of course it’s her continued chosen separateness from the outside world, rather than her disability, which feels so much more debilitating. The idea that one’s “biography becomes one’s biology” (a là medical intuitive Caroline Myss) seems to be enacted here, and while Jane's predicament is certainly ironic and allegorical, her isolation doesn’t seem quite as readily overcome as the play’s ending might suggest.

However, Disillusioned is an unusual and captivating love story with sensitive and playful performances by both Georgie Caldwell as Jane, and Eric Powers as Bernie. Keith Manolo Embler portrays two other key characters, the first a tender and bittersweet portrayal of Ian, a young man in love, while the second seems a bit more difficult to discern as written. (Also with perhaps not enough stage time to fully develop.) Another excellent player is Hans, a gorgeous black bunny who plays Max, the ubiquitous magician’s rabbit and previous sole companion for Bernie prior to Jane’s arrival. Here, Hans makes his New York stage debut, and appears truly aware and fully engaged in his scenes, hitting all his marks (aided by Powers' and Caldwell's excellent handling) and charming the audience. Now if only there were an Obie category for best bunny rabbit...

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