A Fun Little Dystopia on Utopia Parkway

Looking for an alternative to the same old holiday celebrations? If so, check out Dollface, an off-beat comic musical at Theater for the New City. The show is at times irreverently hilarious despite being a bit uneven overall. Its heart is in the right place, however, and its sentiment triumphs in the long run. The storyline focuses on Dolores Zuckerman, a young woman living in Queens hoping for her big break into television stardom as a comedienne. At the same time, she is also wishing for her fiancé of thirteen years to pop the question. A monkey wrench is thrown into Dolores’s life plans when she finds herself entangled in a local jewelry heist that turns lethal for a neighbor’s wife. From here, the plot races forward as the various residents try to ascertain exactly what happened and who is to blame.

The play is given an ingenious framing device. By opening the show with a staged advert for an imaginary cigarette brand, the audience is immediately given the sense of being in a 1950s television program and not in the realm of reality. However, this context is quickly forgotten as the audience is introduced to a slew of characters and an intricately woven, if at times overly complicated, plot. There are extraneous threads in this musical, such as Dolores’s short-lived occupation as a health aide in an assisted living facility. These subplots appear to be included solely as vehicles for comic elements and are therefore unnecessary to the already dense plot unfolding on stage.

In general, the production’s main flaw is its length. Clocking in at nearly two hours, the plot line feels too weak to warrant such a long theatrical telling. Sequences seem to go on longer than needed, particularly due to musical reprises. In addition, the change over times between scenes often seem unnecessarily long. The pauses between one scene and the next end up acting as a distancing, if inadvertent, break to the dramatic action unfolding on stage. The humor of the piece is frequently diffused because a joke is stretched past the point of being clever or a punch line is too long deferred. Some of the raunchier elements are quite witty, but there are innuendos that perhaps go too far or are too blatant to be as funny as that might be. The show is best when it is suggestive, employing double entendres, rather than when it is just broadcasting the sexual or scatalogical joke.

The main strength of this production is its actors. The performances are all quite good, with Linda Shell giving a particularly notable turn in the title role. All of the actors pull off their characters with a touch of charm and a great deal of humor. It is easy to like Dolores and the band of misfits that she has assembled around her, and this is due in great part to how sympathetically they are portrayed. The piece has the potential to easily become one in which the audience laughs at dated stereotypes. Rather than giving into this somewhat clichéd impulse, these performers bring out their personages’ most likable characteristics. In its absurdity, this play feels like a realistic rendering of an outer borough New York City neighborhood in the mid-twentieth century.

There is great fun to be had at Dollface. The sense of innocence that has become synonymous with 1950s television programming is, oddly enough, ubiquitous in this so-called raunchy musical. Dolores is a protagonist who is easy to root for and this production does a commendable job of spotlighting her. This production serves as a welcome interruption to the conventional warm and fuzzy holiday entertainments. In so doing, it allows its spectators to walk away feeling just as charmed as they would have from a more traditional holiday tale.

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"A Fable" of Discovery

A Wonderfully Flat Thing, created by Manju Shandler and Basmat Hazan with script adaptation by Valerie Work and direction by David Winitsky, is a journey of self-discovery for young children, ages three and up, based on A Fable by Mark Twain. The creators' focus for the production is a simplified interpretation of Twain’s concluding moral: “You can find in a text whatever you bring, if you will stand between it and the mirror of your imagination.” The playfulness and clarity of the show’s central notions about self-discovery are clearly communicated and enjoyed by the younger audience members. Twain is struggling to write a tale and decides to take a nap. In his dream, his animal characters come to life. The Cat, performed by Emily Hartford, goes into the forest to report to the other animals that she has discovered a wonderfully flat thing that shows her the most beautiful cat she has ever seen. Donkey, Jake Goodman (who also plays Twain), casts doubt that such a thing could exist. Each animal – Donkey, Snake performed by Sarah Painter, Ostrich by Sarae Garcia, and Elephant by Shawn Shafner – goes to Twain’s room to see for themselves, only to discover a video projected gateway mirror in which each animal sees something different.

Shandler and Hazan use puppetry, dance, video and music to bring their interpretation of the fable to life. The overall set and puppetry design are playful and colorful. The set clearly defines both Twain’s room and the forest, and creates two central flexible spaces. The video, designed by David Tirosh, plays a central role as both the mirror’s reflection and as exaggerated or spectacular versions of each animal self as they look into the mirror. The video is projected on an upstage scrim, which provides an exaggerated view into the mirror, while the downstage area is a flexible space used for dance and traveling from one location to the other.

The puppets are expressive and colorful. They include a string marionette and body puppets. A challenge with the puppets, however, is the manipulation. The actors are clearly and intentionally visible, but the live human actors often draw attention away from the puppet character they are portraying. Despite this, the children in the audience found the puppet characters engaging. The original music by Tamar Muskal compliments the script and provides a thread through the show.

Early in the production, The Cat directly addresses and engages with the children during the performance. The other animal characters continue to include the children throughout the show by asking them questions, for their help, and sitting with them to watch various moments. While this strategy assists the children to remain focused on the story, most are quick to point their way and say that what the animals are looking into is a mirror. They also easily connect the projected image with the mirror. Despite their ready understanding of what is happening on stage, the children are no less delighted by the animals' confusion and their antics on stage, in the video, and in their live double image performed behind the scrim.

The fun of A Wonderfully Flat Thing is its accessible interpretation of Twain’s moral about self-reflection and interpretation, and the delight the audience takes in helping the animal characters along on their journey to self-discovery. This production is an entertaining event for families, particularly with children ages three to seven years.

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Bros, Brawls, Booze and Shubert

If you are looking for the one seasonal play to see this winter, Three Pianos is it. Exhuberantly directed by Rachel Chavkin and written/performed by the beyond talented trio of Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy and Dave Malloy, Three Pianos is so many things: funny, intelligent, irreverant, self-referential, self-deprecating, sad and beautiful, to name a few. After winning an Obie for its run at the Ontological Hysteric last spring, it’s been repolished and moved into New York Theatre Workshop, and is now a more elegant but no less honest version of its former self. The premise is as follows: three friends hanging out on a cold winter’s night, drinking and joking and arguing, stumble into a discussion of Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, about which they joke, argue, and perform, drinking copiously throughout. One of the three, (Dave Malloy) recently broke up with his girlfriend, and the comparison between his twenty-first century depression and coping mechanisms and the melancholic, romantic wanderings of the narrator in Winterreise allows the trio to weave their own relationships to Winterreise and one another into their discussion and performances of Shubert’s beautiful and strange song cycle.

The gorgeous set (excellently designed by Andreea Mincic) resembles an apartment downstage and a wintery wasteland upstage, with large, bare tree branches and vertical fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling. As the trio delve further into their imaginings inspired by the piece, they pull props, like an 18th century lamp, or a mail carrier’s tricycle, from unexpected places. One of my favorite gags is when Malloy pulls a bottle of vodka from a small birdhouse. He and his fellow castmates are eager to share the booze, serving us wine before we take our seats and passing more bottles around at several moments during the play.

A prominent feature of the set is its namesake, the three pianos, which the performers use together and apart. I know little about the art of piano playing, but in my opinion, all three men are superb. I am further impressed by the variety of things they manage to do with these instruments, constantly re-arranging them into different configurations on the set, often playing them as they go: at one point, they arrange the three pianos in a triangle facing inwards, and rotate in a circle, playing and singing as they move. A highly entertaining and impressive feat.

When not wowing us with piano bravado, the trio spends a good amount of time arguing, especially as the play progresses and the alcohol runs dry. They argue about the music, how to represent it and talk about it, what to include and leave out. The discussion is often lighthearted, but it can get intense. At one moment, Malloy says to Burkhardt and Duffy, “…sometimes when you start talking, and talking, and talking, I hate every single thing you’re saying, and it makes me want to, literally, literally, gouge out your eyes. With a piece of glass.”

These moments bring forward the trio’s creative process, their struggles and tensions, which reminds us of the subjectivity of the piece, that Three Pianos is more about Duffy, Burkhardt and Malloys’ relationship to and struggles with Winterreise than it is about Winterreise itself.

Throughout Three Pianos , we rarely get to hear Winterreise without bits of gimmick attached to it, which is fine with me: it’s fun and keeps things moving. It also sets us up for the final moments of the piece. Near Three Pianos’ end there is a long silence: in it, we feel the trio’s exhaustion. Malloy plucks at a couple of random keys on the piano. Finally, Duffy breaks the silence with a, “Sooo…”. These sounds somehow inspire Burkhardt, who asks Duffy and Malloy to repeat and tweak them. He says to Duffy, “Alec, can you say that word you’ve been saying, um, differently? Or just say a different word…?” Duffy responds with, “sooo whaaat…?” asking the question that may be on the minds of his audience. So what? What are we supposed to take from this piece, all the irreverance, the arguing, the alcohol?

It continues: Alec: Rick, you know my life is totally fine without us doing this…things are going well for me and I’m really happy. Rick: Oh.

A pause.

Malloy:I wonder how my ex is doing. I wonder if she’s cold.

The three begin the final song in Winterreise, “Der Lieermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man),” a quietly haunting piece, played and sung simply by all three at their pianos. It begins to lightly snow on the winter waste-land. It’s a beautiful moment, and a kind of answer. Three Pianos shows us the pains of creation and collaboration, the ways in which we cope with dark times, and the beauty and poetry within that darkness. It is an important piece of theater that you will regret missing. So go, enjoy the wine and song. I promise no eye-gouging urges will occur.

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Big Bang Baby

Combine two parts Muppet with one part Mummenschanz. Stir in spoonfuls of the spooky spectacles of the New York City Halloween parade and international Carnival celebrations. Blend with modern-day environmental portents and sprinkle liberally with sci-fi films from the 1950s. Serve immediately to audiences eager for visually and emotionally arresting theater. Written and directed by Kirjan Waage and Gwendolyn Warnock of the ingenious Wakka Wakka Productions, Baby Universe: A Puppet Odyssey is a wild and wacky eco-fable brought to life with over 30 hand-and-rod puppets ranging from nine inches to nine feet. It is a wonder to behold.

Following a September premiere in Norway at the Nordland Visual Theatre in cooperation with Riksteatret, Baby Universe is now playing at the Baruch Performing Arts Center until January 8.

Upon entering the lobby, audience members are greeted by a mini Stephen W. Hawking robot, complete with miniaturized wheelchair and computer-generated voice. This interactive puppet version of the theoretical physicist and cosmologist literally sets the stage for the story to come: a futuristic tale where the Sun is dying, the Earth is on the verge of destruction, and the number of people left has dwindled down to numbers that foretell the end of humankind.

In this world, scientists have been creating so-called “baby universes” in hopes of generating a new planetary system where the surviving population can relocate. Unfortunately, most of these infant cosmos have not survived. The birth of baby universe Number 7,001 is the starting point of this one-hour sci-fi extravaganza.

Number 7,001 grows from a tiny black salamander-esque critter into a boy-like creature increasingly covered in stars. He is nurtured by a loving mother figure crowned with what looks like The Flying Nun’s cowl. 7,001’s formative years, both humorous and touching, make up the first half of the show.

But as Number 7,001 continues to mature against all odds, things turn ugly. He is kidnapped by the stork-like Moon, who resembles a cartoon villain with his beady red eyes and pencil-thin mustache. The Moon, as flunky to the dying Sun (a dazzling and enormous puppet with a shrunken head and headlight eyes), has been instructed to eliminate any threat to the king-like center of the failing universe. The other crusty and cranky planets, including fading diva Earth, burned-out Mercury, and flimflam Mars, are all in cahoots with the Sun as well.

As they demonstrated in the 2008 Drama Desk nominated production of FABRIK: The Legend of M. Rabinowitz, Wakka Wakka pushes the boundaries of the imagination and creates works that are “bold, unique, and unpredictable” (as quoted from their mission statement).

Baby Universe continues this legacy with a stunning assortment of puppets by Mr. Waage and gorgeous costume and mask design by Ms. Warnock. The space-age score by Lars Petter Hagen and eerie lighting by Kate Leahy only enhance the dystopian atmosphere of the production, as does the ingenious script that touches on questions of religion, science, morality, and ecology.

High praise is offered to all five puppeteers (Melissa Creighton, Andrew Manjuck, and Peter Russo along with Waage and Warnock). Prowling the darkened stage dressed in Army-issue coveralls with their faces obscured by end-of-the-world gas masks, the talented quintet creates real emotions and expressions from the inanimate puppets, creating life where none actually exists. Their vocal work, including asides as DJs and interviewees at the acidly-titled Apocalypse Radio, is also superb.

Because of its dark subject matter and sometimes scary imagery, Baby Universe is not recommended for young children. But tweens, teens, and adult theatergoers would be hard-pressed to find a more inventive, engrossing, or striking production currently showing in New York. Baby Universe is a world in and of itself.

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How to Survive the Holidays (for the Near-Suicidal)

For anyone who feels disheartened by the Christmas decorations going up earlier and earlier every year and the thought of spending this holiday once again with boilermakers in an Irish bar, Lonesome Winter by Joshua Conkel and Megan Hill may be just the ticket. Winter Lipschitz (Megan Hill) is a shopaholic and social recluse who barely interacts with anyone except for her cat Sparkles (Joshua Conkel), a surly, demanding animal with lots of attitude and some unusual talents: he makes crank calls to her at her job as a phone operator at a home shopping channel and texts unflattering messages about her to her relatives. Living in a cluttered house filled with clothes she bought but never wore and other treasures, in debt over her eyeballs, and reduced to eating cat food on her lunch sandwich, Winter decides to end it all. Mercifully, Sparkles dials 911 and saves her life. Avery Lipschitz (Kirsten Hopkins), her sister, takes it upon herself to call in life coach Debbie (Nicole Beerman), who proceeds to make the sinking ship of Winter’s life again somewhat seaworthy.

Under the competent direction of Meg Sturiano, who moves the many blackout scenes (I would have preferred to have the scene changes happen in enough light) along at a decent pace, Lonesome Winter takes aim at a great number of our beloved traditions. The main one is the heartwarming “true to life” Christmas special, where a lost soul is pulled back from perdition by the beneficent forces of the universe, here a platitudes-spouting life coach who may or may not be an angel, who stages karaoke parties and make-overs, and works overtime to boost the down-on-herself Winter. The tone of the play is less one of satire than one of parody. This allows the playwrights to stay close enough to the matrix of their targets; one could imagine that they are not just knowledgeable but aficionados of the kitsch they are skewering.

The performances are all excellent, and never too much over the top. Lonesome Winter begins with a very amusing fantasy sequence in which Winter imagines herself the host of the home shopping show, which sets the rules of the game perfectly. In light of what follows, it sets up the hope and desperation of the title character as a gap so wide that it would take a miracle to overcome it. Even Sparkles the cat, played as a bitchy queen, knows to skedaddle off stage seconds before we get exasperated. When Sparkles o.d.'s on pain killers and poinsettia leaves and “goes to the heavy-side lair” to the music of “Memories” from Cats, his performance has earned this last laugh and the silly pay-off. Bobby (Nick Lewis) gives a fine performance as Bobby, who is as much a social misfit as Winter, but cannot fully give her what she needs.

The music covers every rendition of Christmas songs we will hear during this and every holiday season, and the sound design and use of this music is excellent (Meg Sturiano, sound design). Sound makes the final scene, which I liked for its minimalist choice and sweet bow to both the parody and the real emotional side that this play touches on.

A small parody in a small theater, Lonesome Winter is delightful - if perhaps not as biting as it could be - but entertaining throughout so that it is a very apt trifle for this season of charity, kindness and suicidal tendencies.

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A Winter Tale

Michael and Edie, a new play by Rachel Bonds, produced by the Greenpoint Division at The Access Theater, is thoughtful, quiet and sad: a play steeped in winter’s muted tones.  The play primarily takes place in an urban bookstore in late November and early December, and tells the story of two of its employees, whose names are the title of the play.  Michael falls for Edie on his first day of work, but Edie is less enthused.  As the play progresses, we learn of the familial ghosts that haunt the characters’ pasts and presents and watch as a playful friendship forms between Michael and Edie admist stacks of books and heavy snowstorms.  Dark, yet sweet, Michael and Edie is a fine piece of new theater. The play is populated by a cast of idiosyncratic characters, who are, for the most part, very well cast.  Matthew Micucci, who plays Michael, is pleasantly awkward, with doe eyes and an eager smile.  Edie, played by Stephanie Wright Thompson, darts around the stage with a hint of humor, suppressed by sadness.  Both performances are nuanced and endearing, though I find myself wishing for more chemistry between these two would-be lovers.  The first half of the play finds Michael mooning over the uncertain Edie, which is believable enough, but the scenes in which the two are meant to be connecting feel a bit forced.  

Some supporting actors give equally excellent performances.  Jocelyn Kuritsky, who plays Michael’s little sister Sarah, a depressed, anxious teen, is nasal and angular, both comedic and tragic in her adolescent pain.  Gabel Eiben, who plays John, the bookstore owner, creeps up from behind bookshelves and darts around the stage, looking shifty.  One gets the sense that the director,  Robert Saenz de Viteri, used this actor’s personal quirks to their best advantage here, achieving some much needed bits of comic relief.  I am less impressed with Jacob Wilhelmi, who plays Edie’s dead brother, Ben: next to his gifted castmates, he comes off as rather bland.

In all aspects of the production, there is an interesting dichotomy between dark moods and child-like playfulness. Lighting, designed by Natalie Robin, is low and muted, with emphasis on saturated blue backlighting.  The inventive set, designed as an art installation by Hugh Morris, is a combination of piles of books and wire structures hung from the ceiling, bent to look like bookshelves.  While taking inventory at the bookshop, Edie and Michael rattle off names of famous novels and authors, striking the structures as they go, which produces a musical-sounding clang: something between a windchime and churchbell.  

The set’s musicality is sometimes lighthearted, as in the aforementioned scenes, and sometimes sober.  At a particularly serious moment between Sarah and Ben, Sarah knocks together two of the structures in passing, and they clang again and again, rhythmically, solemnly, giving the moment a kind of ceremonious weight.

Rachel Bonds has written a play that is at once lyrical, contemplative and mournful.  Her interest in the passage of time and seasons is a theme beautifully explored in both text and tone, and then further developed in the production's design and direction.  However, in its embrace of winter’s quiet,   Michael and Edie, lacks a sense of urgency:  I do not care enough about these characters and their stories for the piece to move me or change me in any way.  These people are in pain, I know, but I don’t feel it, and I cannot quite enter into it.  Perhaps a little warmth would have been useful here.  But there is no doubt that Bonds is a talented playwright, and The Greenpoint Division a company worth watching. I look forward to seeing their future work.

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Bloodbath on Bond Street

Mortal Folly Theatre presents Macbeth by William Shakespeare in an enthusistically performed production of Shakespeare’s own Sweeney Todd, the demon tyrant of the Scottish Highlands. Directed by artistic director Katherine Harte-DeCoux, this production takes its conceptual cue from the line (quoted as a subtitle on the program) “blood will have blood.” And we get plenty of it, dripping, squirting, splattering the walls and floor, running down daggers and broadswords. Apart from this, the production aims for a straightforward presentation that does not so much illuminate as illustrate the Bard’s Grand Guignol. Do we need to summarize this play? Macbeth, a reluctant Scottish thane (Matthew Rini), inspired by three (here) rather pretty witches (Hannah Sloat, Alyssa Borg and Melanie Stroh), casts off his qualms about using the bodies of his betters as stepping stones to power. His wife (Liz Sklar) hardens the vague predictions of the witches into a specific plan for her husband. As the survivors of the murderous spree that catapults Macbeth to power gather forces in exile to overthrow him, and his wife is overcome by madness, the increasingly paranoid ruler goes for a second helping of advice from the practitioners of the dark arts. He misinterprets their oracle and is finally slain by Macduff.

Katherine Harte-DeCoux has assembled a talented cast of young actors, and, with the capable fight direction by fight director Nathan DeCoux, has them nimbly move from one broadsword bout to another. She also creates, aided by excellent lighting design (Bekah Hernandez) and sound (composed and sound-designed by Amanda Gookin), some moody, emotion-filled moments, and has a good hand with scene endings, letting them complete in an unhurried fashion yet without losing tension.

For anyone who is completely unfamiliar with this play and has had little exposure to Shakespeare, this might be a very exciting, action-packed rendition of Macbeth. The acting is fine. Matthew Rini in the title role and Liz Sklar as Lady Macbeth are particularly excellent, and David A. Ellis gives Banquo complexity and importance.

For those who know the play, though, this may not be quite enough. Illustration can be fine, but this is still shoestring, even if it is an expensive shoestring, where the set and costumes are lovingly prepared and there are swords aplenty,. With such a familiar text we crave for illumination, for the profound or at least clever insight. The athletic Rennaissance Faire-style presentation can be fun for the novice, but this production was good enough to leave me wanting for something more.

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Ghosts of Regret

The main reason to see Haunted, Edna O’Brien’s talky play about dreams and dreamers, is the performance of Brenda Blethyn. The actress brings fire and emotional depth to Gladys Berry, a hard-working middle-class Englishwoman tending towards stoutness, whose history appears undistinguished, as recounted by her layabout husband, Quincy Berry (Niall Buggy). O’Brien’s work is structured as a memory play. In it, Quincy recounts his youth and his dreams of escaping his dreary upper-class life with Gladys, whom he met in a pub, and whose staunch working-class background didn’t fit in with that of his wealthier family. But that is all in the past. Quincy now has other fish to fry. Or at least it seems so. The aging ladies’ man has lured a young, shy woman named Hazel to his home. Hazel wants to purchase a 1920s dress, and Quincy has one for her—but it’s his wife’s garment. The play charts the growing infatuation of Quincy with young Hazel, whom he enlists as a speech teacher for himself and whom he rewards with more clothes. Buggy’s performance, though, doesn’t really provide much juice for the situation, since O’Brien’s dialogue contains a lot of pretentious, “What was it the poet said?” quotations, including Othello, Plato, and Russian poet Alexander Blok (1880–1922).

These interludes, while helping to define Quincy’s educational background and his character as a Miniver Cheevy–style dreamer, also carry a feeling of literary showing-off and time-wasting. And occasionally Quincy’s stream-of-consciousness dialogue about his youth and family doesn’t translate easily to an American ear. A reference to “saddle of hare and Diplomat pudding” will probably leave U.S. audiences, even Anglophiles, baffled. And Quincy’s declaration that he never knew Gladys’s age—“never knew whether she was older or younger than me…hid her passport…never clapped eyes on it”—is implausible and baffling. (Much of his dialogue is also written with a choppiness that becomes exhausting to listen to.)

On the plus side, Blethyn provides an emotional gateway to the work as the hardworking breadwinner who is cruelly betrayed by Quincy. With her middle-class dreams of home, hearth, and an occasional trip abroad, she grounds the show. Gladys is a supervisor at a dollmaking factory and earns the family income while Quincy stays at home and tends his rose garden. He has even designated one for Gladys: “old blush it was called…sturdy…remarkable thorns.” Simon Hoglett’s clever clothes for Blethyn, in cream and rose colors, emphasize rose patterns as well, as do Jack James’s video projections.

Blethyn finds humor in Gladys, who’s a bit of a bully—at one point she grabs Quincy’s nose hard to demand the whereabouts of a petunia-colored coat—but full of warmth and longing for a happy marriage. When she says, “we fascinate each other,” there’s an undercurrent of sadness because of her self-delusion: one knows Quincy’s feelings no longer jibe with hers. Blethyn skillfully draws our sympathies to her well-rounded character, even when she’s behaving badly. “I let the humors get the better of me,” she says apologetically at one point—all the more touching because she’s justifiably irritated.

But Quincy’s passion and imagination have gone to Hazel, played nicely by Beth Cooke as a mousy, shy girl who gradually flowers under the green thumb of her older, gardening-mad mentor. But Hazel isn’t altogether inexperienced. She has had an encounter with a dreamer like Quincy. She describes to him a former client who hired her for tips about speaking. “He didn’t want tips,” she says. “He knew what he wanted and straight away…. He said that people thought he was not emotional, but he was, he simply had to keep it under lock and key.” It’s no accident that her description fits Quincy to a T. Yet, although Buggy does get a strong scene in Act II when he explodes in anger, and he makes the most of it, there’s little in Quincy’s character to make him feel important to a viewer.

Braham Murray’s production, nonetheless, is good at keeping the tone of bewilderment and otherworldliness swirling around this trio. Will Quincy ‘s interest in Hazel lead him to make a move on her? Will Gladys catch them? Will she discover what’s happening to her clothes? Or are all the events in Quincy’s mind? The ending proves disturbingly bleak and painful. That may be enough to draw those interested in serious theater to the journey of these characters, no matter how much unwieldy baggage they carry.

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Behind Every Man

W.E.B. DuBois as matchmaker? Charles Smith’s Knock Me A Kiss is a wonderfully funny and unexpectedly moving imagining of one of America’s earliest celebrity marriages. Running at the Henry Street Settlement’s Abrons Arts Center, the ensemble, under the direction of Chuck Smith, welcomes audiences into the home of renowned scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois as he sets up the “marriage of the century” between his daughter Yolanda and Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen. The couple wed in 1928 and the marriage was short-lived as Cullen preferred men and Yolanda was unwilling to live in a loveless marriage. The inimitable Andre DeShields portrays DuBois as a man of contradictions. The public DuBois was forward-thinking and interested in social advancement. In Knock Me A Kiss, DuBois at home is imperious and perhaps just like the other men of his time when it comes to his views on women. Nina, his wife, played by Marie Thomas, is only referred to as “Wife.” Nina is neglected and invisible. Yolande, played by Erin Cherry, eventually becomes another instrument for the advancement of the race; she is reduced to “Daughter!” when she fails to follow her father’s directions. One can see that she marries Countee to receive her father’s approval and dismiss jazz musician and conductor Jimmy Lunceford.

What is subtly illuminated in this production is the sacrifice that mother and daughter make in order to support DuBois' plans. It is fascinating that Countee Cullen, played by Sean Phillips, with all of his poetic talk of friendship and love, seems nonplused at the idea of having a phony marriage as long as it will provide him with the social mobility that he needs. For every cause there is a cost and, in this world, the price is a woman’s happiness.

Morocco Omari’s Jimmy Lunceford is dashing, and it is obvious why any woman would fall for him. What is not as clear from the production is why Lunceford would fall for Yolanda. The program notes describe the historical Yolande DuBois as “self-indulgent, underachieving, [and] uncertain.” Yolande is simultaneously spoiled and idealistic. She unequivocally wants to teach the less fortunate and she unequivocally wants a husband who can send her first class to Paris. Erin Cherry’s Yolande spends most of the first act behaving like a pouting debutante, and the theatrical Yolande comes off as immature and irritating. It is only in the second act, as the play’s unfortunate events unravel, that we catch a glimpse of the Cherry’s depth, and it would be lovely to see more of this earlier in the play.

Otherwise, Knock Me A Kiss is a fantastic night of theater, and I hope that the production can find another home in New York City.

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Manliness, Manly Mess

Billed as “two plays about men” with all-male casts, BALLS! The Testosterone Plays of Monica Bauer is currently playing a limited run at the WorkShop Theatre Main Stage through December 5. BALLS! is a compelling evening of theater showcasing some wonderful acting and keen writing. The show’s press release describes BALLS! as “two plays about marriage, one gay, and one straight,” but it is really more about the many iterations of what it means to be a man — and a husband — in contemporary society. Various guises of manhood are displayed throughout the show — young, old, gay, straight. This is what makes BALLS! so intriguing. The 30-minute one-act titled Two Men Walked into a Bar that leads off the show starts as three actors enter the stage and literally sound off before the action begins. It is late at night in a seedy bar in Alabama and two Marine veterans (one from Vietnam, the other Iraq) engage in an escalating face off about their respective lives and wives.

The dramatic structure of this piece is very sound, befitting Bauer’s status as a writing fellow at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut and former teaching fellow in the graduate playwriting program at Boston University, where she received her MA in playwriting. Each man slowly reveals his own predicament and the particulars surrounding his situation as the liquor flows and time ticks by.

As the Iraq vet, Aaron Gonzalez has a youthful swagger that acts as a mask to his physical and emotional pain. Nick Ruggeri as the seasoned Vietnam vet seethes with anger and resentment. Both actors bring multiple shades to their portrayals.

But Two Men is the more problematic of the two pieces. It is too overwrought, with sheer physicality taking the place of truer emotion. Perhaps this is meant to represent the “testosterone” section of the play’s title, but it ends up ringing a bit false, as the does the murderous subplot in this section (which I won’t give away to avoid spoiling the ending). However, the cast gives it their all and sells the script regardless of the flaws.

The nearly one-hour solo piece, Made for Each Other, that makes up the second half of the show features a tour de force performance by actor John Fico (A.R. Gurney’s Screen Play at The Flea). Billed as “a boy meets boy love story in the shadow of Alzheimer’s,” it chronicles the fall-out from a marriage proposal on the third date between two middle-aged gay men.

Fico is marvelous and captivating on stage by himself, playing four distinct roles, addressing the audience as each individual character, and revealing the bittersweet romance between the two lovers and their individual struggles with their families and sexualities. Made for Each Other recently appeared in the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, where it was nominated for Outstanding Solo Show and Best Actor in a Solo Show. The playwright wrote the piece specifically for Fico — and it shows. He is born to play these parts and dives deep into each character with personal touches and tics that add nuance and subtlety to each portrayal.

My only concern with Made for Each Other is the inclusion of the Alzheimer’s suffering mother as one of the roles. Don’t get me wrong — she is a colorful character and Fico does a wonderful job with her. But she seems out of place in a show called BALLS! that focuses primarily on men and what it means to be a man.

As directed by John Fitzgibbon and evocatively lit by lighting designer David S. Goldstein, BALLS! The Testosterone Plays of Monica Bauer will particularly appeal to theater lovers who revel in the black box experience — an intimate space with little to no scenery that produces theatrical magic with a minimum of fuss and maximum talent. And with John Fico's outstanding solo performance as the highlight, there is certainly a lot of talent onstage in BALLS!

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Fjord Wars

If Rosmersholm isn’t the first play that comes to mind when someone mentions Henrik Ibsen, it’s still undeniably by the Norwegian master, and fans will want to see the Pearl Theatre’s first-rate production of this unusual, frequently melodramatic, play. Ibsen’s great works—The Master Builder, A Doll’s House, An Enemy of the People, The Wild Duck—aren’t walks in the park, but they continually feel vital. If Rosmersholm is not in their league, it still has a strong pulse. As usual, Ibsen winds his plot tightly. Johannes Rosmer (Bradford Cover), scion of an aristocratic family, has returned to his estate on the outskirts of a city after a period away following the suicide of his wife, Beata. Staying with him is his foster daughter, Rebecca West (Margot White). His late wife’s brother, Doctor Kroll, pays a visit to persuade Rosmer to join his political party, which recently lost elections to a liberal faction. Kroll is a reactionary who believes that the liberals will ruin the country and must be stopped.

But Rosmer, a former pastor, has undergone a conversion and renounces his aristocratic heritage. “One day I simply admitted it to myself—everything that had been handed down to me—through generation upon generation—was pernicious worthless deception,” he tells Kroll. The patrician now sympathizes with the common man: “I want to ennoble them…By not presuming to tell them what they must think—how they must act. By letting them find their own way to what is true and good.” Kroll is incensed. There are more than a few echoes of 21st-century culture wars in the conflict between Kroll and Rosmer, and they enliven the best parts of Rosmersholm.

It’s one of the marvelous ironies of Ibsen that Kroll’s political rival, the more phlegmatic Peder Mortensgaard (Dominic Cuskern), is equally appalled. Expecting to cash in on Rosmer’s support as a pillar of society, he quickly backtracks when he learns Rosmer has renounced Christianity. “Nobody will give you the time of day if they think you’d turned against the Church,” Mortensgaard says. “They’re all good church-going folk out there. What our movement needs is converts—Church leaders who’ve come round to our way of thinking—men the people respect.”

The parallels in Rosmersholm to the current venomous political climate must surely have drawn director Elinor Renfield to the play, and she’s responded with a well considered production. And veteran Austin Pendleton, making a guest appearance with the Pearl as Kroll, can recognize a juicy part. Apart from some occasional tentativeness on his lines in preview, he makes Kroll a smarmy, self-righteous and baleful figure whose mantra is “who is not with me is against me.”

A brief subplot underlines the liberal vs. conservative clash, as Dan Daily puts in a delightful appearance as Ulrik Brendel, a penniless New Age visionary (dressed deftly in shabby clothes, dirty boots, purple vest, suspenders and a gray, long-haired wig by Niki Hernandez-Adams) who cadges money from Rosmer like a Norwegian Micawber. Rounding out the cast of six is the superstitious housekeeper Mrs. Helseth (Robin Leslie Brown), who yammers on about a white horse in local legend that is the harbinger of death. That white horse is a symptom of the common folks’ superstitions that would probably undermine Rosmer’s hopes for their self-determination.

The melodrama intermittently present in the first half of the play takes over in the second half. (In fact, the late Charles Ludlam wickedly parodied the play’s first scene in The Mystery of Irma Vep for the Ridiculous Theatrical Company.) From Kroll and Mortensgaard’s visits, Rosmer learns that Beata conceived a notion that he and West were having an affair. As she was slowly going insane (possibly from guilt that she was barren), Beata confided her worries to her brother, and in a letter to Mortensgaard implored him not to listen to unfounded rumors about immorality at Rosmersholm.

As Ibsen slowly unveils this melodramatic machinery, West takes center stage, and the plot overheats. It’s not the fault of White, who has the confident deportment of the New Woman of the period and vividly shows her character’s lively mind and opinions, along with a cold calculation. But Cover’s Rosmer, initially a solid, decent man, suddenly seems excessively dewy-eyed, full of scholarly learning but less common sense. Indeed, Harry Feiner’s dappled white backdrop design suggests a bank of clouds wherein Rosmersholm floats, its master’s head figuratively in the clouds.

Rosmer doesn’t see the twists in the plot coming as quickly as an audience member will, although the climax remains a surprise, even if it’s weakened by implausibility. Still, Ibsen completists will want to seize the chance to glimpse this rarity as if it were Halley’s comet coming round for a visit.

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep at 3LD Art & Technology Center

The short answer, given in this adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s eponymous novel, is yes. What this does, or should, mean to us, however, is a different question. Philip K. Dick’s questions about what it is to be human have not lost their urgency, and many of his devices (the mood manipulator, the empathy box) while perhaps amusing in their crude realizations, can be found in every household, briefcase and pocket. The quest for an end to a potentially all-annihilating war is not over, and one could easily replace the designation “android” with one like “Taliban” and find many who would prefer their confinement or annihilation. Rick Deckard (Alex Emanuel), a bounty hunter in a post-nuclear-war world, is faced with hunting down six androids, humanoid robots that are used as slaves on Mars but are forbidden to come to Earth. His pursuit of the six escaped androids leads him into a maze of moral and practical questions about the difference between humans and robots that can remember but not feel empathy, have sex without love, and might be more perfect in terms of beauty and intelligence than their creators. He is suspected by others to be an android himself, particularly due to his ability to kill with little empathy for his prey. In the end he escapes death and resumes life with his wife Iran (Uma Incrocci).

Edward Einhorn’s adaptation (he also directs) stays close to the novel, which is – as so often with adaptations – a blessing and a curse. The dramatic scenes are short but require long expositions to be comprehensible, making the play feel longer than its 90 minutes. The post-apocalyptic world Dick envisioned in 1968 becomes here a postmodern jumble of visual elements from the fifties (the pre-show film snippets of instructions of how to behave in a nuclear attack), music (by Henry Akona, performed live by Michael Midlarsky on cello and Moira Stone, soprano) that seems inspired by Schoenberg and Berg in its haunting dissonances, and costuming that suggests anything from current thrift shop to film noir detective outfits.

That this novel also served as the starting point for the iconic film Bladerunner makes Einhorn’s task no easier, and many lines of dialogue and scenes from Ridley Scott’s film ghosted in my mind while watching this play. But in the end, and particularly thanks to the strong acting by Alex Emanuel as Deckard, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep found its affecting conclusion, and the answer to the question in the title. The need to preserve life is strong, and even an electric sheep’s destruction can be painful. And while this, as one character in the play states, may be an egotistical emotional need, it feeds our hopes and dreams.

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A Lesson in Urban Planning

Leaving Irondale Theatre after viewing the Civilians’ In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards, I felt like I just left a dinner party where I was the only one who didn’t know anything about the major topic of conversation. Therefore I had to sit for several hours and quietly sip my wine, watching jargon fly and faces redden, feeling confused and tired, unable to develop an opinion and needing an aspirin. The difference being, in In the Footprint , they argue to song, and I get no wine. The production’s press release states that “ In the Footprint is inspired by interviews conducted by The Civilians with real-life players in the years-long controversy about the Atlantic Yards Project, which will bring high-rise housing and a basketball arena to the rail yards in downtown Brooklyn.” (For more information on the controversy, go here: wikipedia.org/Atlantic_Yards .) The company attempts to tackle the issue thoroughly and fairly, and more or less does so. However, it fails to stir me: after the final bows, I am not sure what I think about the issue, and more importantly, why I should care.

The style of the play is documentary theater reminiscent of Anna Deveare Smith’s one woman shows, performed by an ensemble of six. The majority of the piece is comprised of monologues taken from interviews conducted by The Civilians over the course of two years. The set is barebones, and extensive video projection is used throughout, not unlike a trumped-up classroom presentation.

Interspersed throughout the play are musical numbers, composed by Michael Friedman in contemporary Broadway style. They don’t appear enough to call the piece a musical (they term it “a play with music”) and are used primarily as tools a la School House Rock, to introduce names of organizations or eminent domain-related terms. The style and music operate to alienate the audience from the material, so that they may analyze it objectively. Because of this, I get no sense of the community the story is about (Prospect Heights), and why I should care about its possible demise. What does Prospect Heights look like? Feel like? Sound like? Certainly not a Broadway musical.

However, there are upsides to this alienation effect. One benefit of being disconnected from the piece is that I get to admire the actors’ work. I love watching talented actors play multiple roles well, and these actors certainly excel at it. I actually didn’t realize there are only six actors in the cast: there were so many varied characters, I thought the ensemble numbered at least eight.

Matthew Dellapina and Donnetta Lavinia Grays deliver particularly standout performances. Their portrayals of community members and activists provide me with a few brief moments of empathy. Grays is one of those actors who can enthrall while doing nothing more than standing still, listening, in character. What a treat to get to watch her do so.

Another treat occurs about two thirds into In the Footprint . Here, the structure of the play breaks and instead of speaking one at a time to the audience, various characters come together and argue with one another face to face. All of the major ideological and racial tensions surface in an explosion of finger pointing and heated words. One realizes how complex this issue really is, stemming from highly contentious issues: gentrification, racial inequality, and real, deep seated anger. For a moment, the play strikes a chord: one understands the situation as indicative of issues bigger than Atlantic Yards and more painful than housing relocation.

In my opinion, that chord is not struck nearly enough. The press release claims that “ In the Footprint is an examination of how the fate of the city and its dwellers is decided in present-day New York and what might be learned from this ongoing epic of politics, money, and the places we call home.” But what might be learned remains unclear to me. Further, I am not moved to care enough about this event to try to figure it out. In the Footprint is an informative piece of theater that teaches us about the Atlantic Yards controversy, but does not show us the neighborhood it affects, its sounds and sights, and its unique flavor that the project is ostensibly destroying. It gives us a situation that is more or less over and leaves us puzzling over what to do with it. If you are particularly interested in and knowledgable about this issue, it may be worth your while. Otherwise, it’s just too much of a headache.

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Highway to the Anger Zone

In Kim Rosenstock’s new play, Tigers Be Still, it’s not just the big cat of the title that’s on the run – at one point a dog gets loose too. But while these animals run wild, their human counterparts are in varied cases of stasis in this introspective work from a very promising emerging playwright. Sherry (Halley Feiffer), a 24-year-old art therapist, is the connective tissue between these cocooned lives. These include her older sister Grace (Natasha Lyonne), who has retreated home after breaking up with her adulterous fiancé and brought half of his belongings – including his pet dogs – with her. Grace now spends her days in a fugue state, nursing Jack Daniel’s and re-watching Top Gun ad nauseum. The two sisters live with their mother, who has put on so much weight that she hides in her bedroom offstage and refuses to emerge, Gilbert Grape-style.

There are also several men attached to Sherry, including Joseph (Reed Birney), the principal of the high school where Sherry teaches but also the erstwhile prom date of Sherry’s mother, and his teen son, Zack (John Magaro), who becomes Sherry’s teaching assistant but is also in need of some therapy himself in the wake of his mother’s death in a car accident.

Rosenstock’s look at frozen lives is sharp but also painless; there is a plot, of sorts, that includes a tiger on the loose, but Tigers is really a character study. In this way the play calls to mind one of last year’s great triumphs, Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, in which characters’ seeming immobility actually had tons to tell and propelled the story along. Both shows have something else in common in the form of director Sam Gold, a genius at exacting nuance and depth from even the slightest situation.

And Gold does just that in Tigers. Grace, for example, could be a really self-indulgent showboating piece, but Lyonne does the work of dealing with the character’s pain beneath the humor to inject her with true pathos. Magaro, too, navigates the fine line between typical surly youth and emotionally crippled survivor with impressive skill: Zack engenders humor and sympathy as his complicated relationship with Sherry develops. Feiffer, too, is generous throughout the play, taking what could have been an annoyingly quirky leading role – Sherry has never had a job or a boyfriend, but comes armed with human insight – and instead weaving herself into the tapestry of an ensemble.

It’s Birney, though – himself a Circle Mirror grad – who runs away with his too few scenes in Tigers as the show’s most believable character. Rosenstock has made Joseph a character full of secrets, some of which he keeps from us (including a high school inside joke that remains between him and Sherry’s mother only) and some of which he keeps from other characters. A solo scene in which Joseph attempts to cancel his late wife’s yoga magazine subscription is a case study in grief and a textbook example of rich performance.

Tigers isn’t yet a perfect play. It would benefit from a little economy; if Rosenstock could cut down on the number of quick two-hander scenes, the play might feel less meandering as this quartet’s emotional journey continues.

And while it is a great compliment for the play to be a part of the Roundabout Underground series, the black box theater there is dreadful. With Gold’s actors often sitting or laying down, much of the action is quite literally impossible to see if one is not in the front row; a Cirque du Soleil member couldn’t do all of the craning and contorting necessary to see everything on that stage. (Still, what one can see of Dane Laffrey’s costumes and sets are worth it.)

Rosenstock’s play is proof-positive that many things in life are possible. Tigers can be tamed. People can get through grief. And it’s possible to write a smart, sensitive play that is pure joy to sit through.

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Darkness Becomes Them

Both playwright Adam Rapp and downtown theater company The Amoralists are known for their in-your-face works. Consider the brute force of Rapp’s Pulitzer finalist, Red Light Winter, or the bravura work done in the extremist acting group’s magnum opus, The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side. These are creative forces who have never stopped in the comfortable middle ground. Fortunately, they take us somewhere far beyond in Ghosts in the Cottonwoods. This is Rapp’s first full-length play. Though written a decade and a half ago, it is only now getting its New York stage birth, with Rapp also onboard as director and the Amoralists joining him for the first time as the show’s collective surrogate mother.

Ghosts is a dark, measured play that predicts some of Rapp’s best works, including Winter and this summer’s The Metal Children and skirts some of the tricks that troubled other later works like Bingo With the Indians and Essential Self Defense. Thanks to set designer Alfred Schatz’s excellent tableau, we immediately establish the setting as a sort of Appalachian Gothic (the same image evoked this fall in Soho Rep’s Orange, Hat and Grace). Bean Scully (Sarah Lemp) shares a tough but close bond with her son Pointer (Nick Lawson) in their shack as they await the return of elder son Jeff (James Kautz), who has escaped from prison.

But other visitors will arrive first. William Apps is Newton Yardly, a badly injured bounty hunter who stumbles upon the Scully’s door. Remember that creepy hitchhiker who terrorized the characters early on in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Apps projects the same kind of secret horror onstage, adding the first dose of suspense to this white-knuckle affair. It’s hard to tell, at first, whether he is more of a threat to himself or to Bean and Pointer.

By the time we find out, though, Shirley Judyhouse (Mandy Nicole Moore) has also turned up on this rainy night, with a potentially destructive announcement: she’s carrying Pointer’s baby. The sense of dread, and overall intensity of Rapp’s show, only deepen further when Jeff and a friend of his (Matthew Pilieci) finally arrive.

Rapp has created a world of anomie here – rules, justice,and civility have no need to apply, and his cast treats this material with a seriousness requiring major commitment on their end. They work so well together that it seems wrong to single any of them out, but the work is so strong, I’ll do it anyway. Leading the pack is Lemp as the broken Bean, a woman who has retreated into her own world for reasons both explained and merely suggested. It’s a harrowing portrayal that I imagine left more than just this reviewer breathless by show’s end.

Lawson is uncanny as the son Bean has dragged down into the sinkhole with her, and the nimble way the two of them move and deliver Rapp’s brilliant backwoods idioglossia is impressively eerie. Apps, Kautz and Pilieci all go full throttle in their embodiments of menace, while Moore’s subtle choices add up to haunting effect.

The execution of Ghosts is so perfect that one almost overlooks one puzzling problem with the show. Despite Rapp’s taut direction, it is unclear what the ultimate takeaway of the play is supposed to be. Ordinarily, that would count as a pretty damning charge, but Ghosts is such a solid oak that there is no point in cutting it open to count the rings. The curtain descends long before audience members can catch their breath enough to question what they have just witnessed. That’s more than enough to make this scary sojourn worth the trip.

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PTSD, Danish Style: Home Sweet Home at PS122

In the United States, where the field is crowded with plays about the veterans of wars from WWII to Vietnam to Iraq, the bar is set high for plays about those damaged by war. So the Scandinavian American Theatre Company is not in an enviable position in bringing Andreas Garfield’s Home Sweet Home to New York audiences. The play does not overcome this handicap, despite able direction by Christopher Berdal, a set fashioned amusingly from cardboard boxes by Marte Johanne Ekhougen, and an energetic cast of three (Brian Smolin as Kim; Albert Bendix as Carsten, the vet returning from Iraq and Kim’s best friend; and Lisa Pettersson, also its translator, as Iben, Kim’s girlfriend). Kim and Iben have invited to dinner Kim’s childhood friend Carsten, now an early-thirties career officer who just returned from Iraq. Even with their stuff still in boxes and their newly bought house still under construction, they do their best to make the evening special, and Kim, both anxious and excited, cautions Iben not to challenge Carsten’s participation in the Iraq war. Carsten’s arrival (in full dress uniform) and his increasingly erratic behavior over dinner leads to the tragic ending we might expect from a play entitled Home Sweet Home.

The playwright seems most at home with the uncomfortable dynamic of two old friends whose years apart do not easily lead to renewed common interests. Both are performing – posturing, really – for Iben, who for her part jumps at the first opening Carsten gives her to challenge him on his participation in the war. All this raises tensions and hints at traumatic events in Carsten’s past, but Garfield is on less certain ground here and leaves much of Carsten’s experience wrapped in vague suggestions, making it difficult for us to understand the climax of the play.

The extensive use of video projections also makes the play less harrowing than it might be. By filming important scenes rather than finding a way to present them full-bodied in real time on the stage, the writer and director eliminate the element of changeability and spontaneous creation that make theater "theater" and not cinema. This is especially true of the play's climax, which is projected rather than performed. While I can appreciate the narrative efficiency of this move, it removes the heat of immediacy and leaves us, for no aesthetic or intellectual reason, watching the representation of a representation, and thus distanced from its emotional power.

Home Sweet Home takes the horrors of war and their aftermath, both national and personal, and renders them distant by its dominant production device of a cool newsmagazine rendition. The dramatic presentation of the characters, their motives, and their emotions could be much more engaging. That it is an Iraq-war-inspired play originating in Denmark could be of great interest to American audiences. This aspect, however, is not dramatized in this production.

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A Place for Remembering

There are many ways to tell a story. One can use language to convey meaning, one can provide images to depict what happened, or one can use the body to elucidate what the physical experience was like. In LOCO7’s new puppet piece at LaMaMa, In Retrospect, all of these elements are used. The piece works as a full sensory experience designed to get at the heart of memory and how it makes us human. The piece is often beautiful and poignant, filled with performative images that an audience member will not soon forget. To attempt to tease out a narrative plot from this piece would be a futile effort. Federico Restrepo, the piece’s co-creator, has written in the program that “this piece investigates how we construct our personal memory box: how we keep our memories fresh and preserve the things that made us who we are.” Indeed, there is the sense in this play that the audience is stepping into the personal memories of the people on stage. We are shown various images to which the three performers react, be they glass balls with photos in them that fall from the sky, a fabric wall of fishes, or an oversized and overstuffed touchtone phone. From the moment we move behind the play’s first image, that of three individuals staring out of their respective apartment windows, we have left the realm of distanced, fourth-wall, representational performance and entered something else entirely, something deeply personal.

Each one of the three performers participates in group performance numbers as well as solo pieces. Primarily, these scenes are constructed of dance and movement sequences accompanied by music. They are unique in that, often, their fellow dancers are puppets or other such material constructions. The creative team was very clever in their construction of all of the puppets and life-size puppet-costumes that they created. Each one introduces a sense of whimsy while still being detailed and expressive enough to evoke real emotion. Every object on stage, from the more traditional marionettes to the large music box from which a dancing doll appears, is as mesmerizing to watch as the dancers themselves.

The dancing is, however, the highlight of the evening’s entertainment, particularly Restrepo’s performance. This theme of memory is, at heart, always deeply tied to the human, thus making the human body the most effective tool in grappling with it. These dance sequences are rarely accompanied by any sort of text, yet they tell a powerful story about what happens when long-lost memories are triggered, how dreams weave into our experiences of the world, and how human interaction is what we long for and crave. Restrepo dances with body puppets of what appear to be him, one from his past childhood and one from his future of old age. Yet this scene also evokes the sense of a man dancing with both his father and his son. This image, however one chooses to read it, is powerful and extraordinarily human.

The play is underscored with beautiful live music. These compositions help to create fluid transitions as well as setting distinct moods for each sequence. The piece also includes several filmic interludes. The back wall, made of blinds, can ingeniously twist to become a projection screen. Despite the ingenuity of making this effect work on stage, these filmed scenes are the weakest elements included in the production. The poetic voiceovers are lovely but they are abstractions on the theme, often alienating the viewer from the live body on stage rather than highlighting that live body’s presence.

All in all, this play is nothing short of a work of art. In less than an hour’s time, it is able to trigger many strong emotions – especially those of love and sadness – through the simplest of theatrical tricks. The piece is hard to sum up in words because it is so special. It is worth experiencing for oneself. It will create a new memory worth storing for years to come in one’s own memory box.

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Women on the Verge of Who Knows What

There is something eager and earnest about Tin Lily’s production of Fefu and her Friends . Maria Irene Fornes’ provocative and challenging play explores the private and public dynamics of a group of women, their personal and collective joys and struggles. I am not intimately familiar with this play: Tin Lily’s production was my introduction to it. I gleaned that Fefu and Her Friends is a challenging piece of text with a multitude of plots and subtext, riddled with moments of lyrical unreality. However, in Tin Lily’s production, much of what it is attempting to do and say is lost on me. Despite earnest intentions, the cast and creative team of Tin Lily’s Fefu do not seem to fully understand the play they are producing, and therefore, neither do I. Fefu and her Friends is set on a day in 1935 in Fefu’s home, where a group of women are assembling to plan a fundraising event. The play has an interesting structure: while the first and third acts are basically straightforward, the second act is unique. The first act takes place in Fefu’s living room and introduces us to the eight women and their general relationships to one another. In the second act, four scenes occur at once in four different locations in the theater, or four different “rooms” in Fefu’s house. The audience splits into small groups and moves from room to room, viewing each scene in turn. These scenes are more intimate and revealing. The third act brings us back to Fefu’s living room and the big group, where the intimate revelations of the previous scenes seep into the public space, causing a kind of tragic unraveling.

The lack of clarity in the piece comes through most clearly in individual performances. Tai Verley’s Fefu is muddled and erratic. I feel little empathy for Fefu, because I do not understand her as a character, and I wonder if Verley does, either. Nora Williams, who plays Julia, a woman in a wheelchair with a dark past and prone to hallucinations, leans too far into the character’s meakness and comes off as dull. I am generally more impressed with the supporting actors. Kyle Williams, in particular, is an excellent Paula: humorous, endearingly quirky and uncertain. However, even she goes through moments where it seems as though she is unsure why her character is saying what she is saying. I found myself wishing they, or their director, had spent more time attempting to understand the text and characters.

Tin Lily’s production of Fefu is staged at the Center for Performance Research, a space in Williamsburg that is better equiped for art installations than theater. There is little flexibility in terms of lighting. All instruments are exactly the same: the small, ungelled lights often seen in gallery spaces, and they do little more than light up the room. At several moments, the play slips somewhat jarringly into other realities: hallucinations, dreams, poetry, and lyrical monologues that feel very different from the majority of the text. These moments would have been well served by atmospheric changes: shifts in lighting and sound. Tin Lily Productions attempts this at one or two moments, but the equipment at their disposal proves inadequate, and the moments fall short.

Fefu is not without strengths. Joshua David Bishop’s set is simple and flexible, evoking the art deco style of the period with geometric shapes and the absence of frills. It works well in the space, which is set up in a thrust configuration. The backs of the couch pieces are empty frames that one can see through, so they never block the audiences’ vision. The director, Jillian Johnson, takes care to stage scenes in such a way that the entire audience gets a good set of stage pictures: a noteworthy feat, with a large cast in a small space.

If nothing else, the play presents a truthful portrait of intimacy between women. One of the best scenes is a water fight that takes place on and off stage in Act Three amidst bursts of giggles and shouts, a joyful study in ordered chaos.

The joys of female friendship are perhaps under-portrayed in contemporary American theater, and it is gratifying to see them explored in Tin Lily’s Fefu. However, I think Fornes is saying much more about womens’ lives than this production brings to light. Further, it is unclear to me what this play, written in the 1970’s about a group of women in the 1930’s, has to offer an audience in 2010, and this, in my opinion, is the biggest failing of the production. Tin Lily Productions is an energetic company, no doubt, but it needs to focus its energy and say something clear and specific, if it wants to make any sort of impact.

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Eternal But Not

Attention theatergoers: Another play about how hollow life is in these post-post days is now playing at the Vineyard Theatre. It’s drawl, depressing, occasionally funny and ultimately pointless. And it’s two and a half hours long. To the credit of the talented cast and crew of Will Eno’s latest offering, Middletown, those hours go by rather quickly. What happens? A bunch of characters introduce themselves to the audience, say funny things, choke each other, say some more funny things, go to the library, and top it off with saying some funny things. Then comes intermission, which for me consisted of a chat with a fellow spectator, who succinctly summarized what the play is saying: “Some things are eternal, but not.” He nailed it. At this point, the play still seemed like it could be hiding something under its celebrated cloak of mundanity.

Quickly after resuming the action, however, the direction of the piece becomes clear – depressing philosophizing replaces humorous chit-chat. The second act shows each of the rather endearing characters we met in the first act (James Mcmenamin is especially sweet as the prospect-less George Gibbs) deteriorating into depression and death. We end up in a hospital, where all of them converge for one reason or another. The only exception is the delightful librarian, played with sweet, compassionate detachment by Georgia Engel.

The set, costumes (David Zinn) and lighting (Tyler Micoleau) all work coherently to convey the drab simplicity of contemporary life. The acting style also is simple and to the point, and director Ken Russ Schmoll aptly does what the script demands. Mr. Eno is clearly talented, drawing his audience along with little action and bouncy dialogue, swinging the play cleverly back and forth between the realities of Middletown and that of the present moment in the theater.

However, the play makes the mistake of constantly calling attention to its relation to its mythological ancestor, Our Town, and never comes close to living up to that comparison. The one aspect of Eno's adaptation that does draw from Wilder in a way that adds color and depth to the production is the actors' ongoing interaction with the audience. The first act, for example, ends with us watching a theatricalized version of ourselves - actors playing audience members talking about the first half of the play, texting, and wondering what will come next in the second act. "Oh, it's starting," they say, at the end of their five minute dialogue. We watch the lights go down on the actor-audience, and feel the lights come up on us - intermission.

Still, the evening amounts to a sad conclusion, one which is actually far from true: that our day and age is not only far more hollow than the time when Wilder wrote his masterpiece, but also incapable of creating its own stories, instead relying on adapting those of past times.

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From the Warhorses Mouth

59 E 59th Theatre, together with Fallout Theatre, presents Personal Enemy, the world premiere of a lost 1953 play by John Osborne and Anthony Creighton. Set in the United States in the year of its writing, the play was rediscovered in the Lord Chamberlain’s archives. Written in the year Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was first produced, it takes a fascinating look at the paranoid world of the McCarthy era and ultimately makes a powerful case as a play for our time as well. On the morning of her birthday, we meet Mrs. Constant (Karen Lewis), attended to by her husband (Tony Turner), daughter (Joanne King), son-in-law (Mar Oosterveen), and son Arnie (Peter Clapp), along with her Polish neighbor Mrs. Slifer (Genevieve Allenbury) and, later on, the Reverend Merrick (Stephen Clarke, who also plays librarian Ward Perry and an investigator for the House Un-American Activities Committee). On this day, the world is in order; even the pain over the loss of the older son Don in the Korean War has given way to the comfort of hero worship.

However, the domestic idyll is soon shattered, from within and without, when a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass turns up with the dedication “To Arnie, with love from Ward.”

Suspicion about Arnie’s sexuality and Ward’s influence over the son mushrooms into obsessive investigation when it is discovered that Ward (an atheist and former member of the Communist Youth) had given a copy of the same book, with a similar inscription, to the lost son, who, as the family finds out, did not die in Korea but decided to join the small group of American POWs who, though able to return home, elected not to come back.

The confluence of (never explicitly mentioned but much hinted at) homosexuality, communist ideology and atheism leads to a climate, in the Constants’ household and the small-town world around them, where everyone is suspected and suspicious, and the mother’s mantra of “live and let live” turns into “attack everyone in sight.”

John Osborne and Anthony Creighton’s play, written in 1953 but not produced until 1955 (and then in a version severely censored by the Lord Chamberlain), is a long play overloaded with narrative expository detail. But just when I began to tire of the many stories that make up its narrative, Personal Enemy began to grab me again. The corrosive energy of the anti-gay, anti-intellectual attitudes, the viciousness with which anyone thinking differently from the powers-that-be is subjected to attack, the intolerance towards the non-believers (whether in God or in the American way of life) that drives this family to ruin suddenly struck me as the stuff of today’s politics.

David Aula’s brisk staging, an excellent cast of British actors with near flawless American accents, and an interestingly designed space (a scrim invokes the mountains of Korea, allowing for “out of focus” moments that make the set appear deeper than the small stage allows) create a complex world. Sound was used to enhance the set (cars arriving and driving off) and, in several moments on TV, to invoke the early folk-music, Beat generation of the fifties.

The costumes clearly place the play in the fifties, although I felt that the Act 2 dresses of mother and daughter, made from an urban camouflage print fabric, emphasize in a perhaps too obvious manner one of the flaws of this play. Osborne-Creighton have the two women shoulder most of the hard-driven, shrill hatred and intolerance, while the men, with the exception of the Reverend and the Investigative Agent, are the sensitive ones ultimately victimized by a hatred that mirrors, in a single household, the lynch-mob violence of a town and a country.

Expecting a literary curiosity, I was gratified that this production presents a play that is very relevant to today’s political and social debates. It is a play that would benefit from a larger stage, and deserves to be seen by anyone concerned about the obdurate anti-intellectualism, hypocrisy, and intolerance against those who are different that fuels tea- and other parties.

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