Lord Have Mercy

According to Flannery O’Connor, “the basis of art is truth, both in matter and in mode.” And the truth is in the pudding in the revival of The Savannah Disputation, a charming and thought-provoking comedy by Evan Smith produced by Me & She Productions and ManyTracks Inc., at The Cell Theatre, the beautiful artists’ rental space in Chelsea. Set at Christmas time in Georgia, it is an exploration at the battle between the righteous. It’s the Catholics versus the Protestants in Southern style.

Two unmarried prudish Catholic sisters, appropriately named Mary and Margaret (played by Lucy McMichael and Charlotte Hampden respectively) are forced to defend their faith to Melissa (played by Katie Yamulla), an overzealous Protestant cheerleader for Jesus. The situation becomes tricky when they call in the troops, Father Murphy and their parish priest (performed by Michael Gnat) to prove his valor and set the wayward Protestant straight. They all learn some humbling lessons as they try to prove that their idea of faith is right and the other is wrong. Of course, they all learn that maybe they are really on the same side after all and that maybe organized religion isn’t always the best way to save your soul. 

Understanding the details of time and place is necessary to an accurate and convincing set. Sarah Edkins was spot-on with her interpretation of an old-style Southern Catholic home in Georgia. Complete with Better Homes and Gardens and Reader’s Digest on the mahogany coffee table that anyone from the South would recognize—the only missing magazine was Southern Living.

The two sisters are like the good fairies in "Sleeping Beauty" trying to figure out which color Princess Aurora’s dress should be. Both bicker and flit around their pristine cage showing their contrasting temperaments. But Melissa, the enthusiastic holy roller, is no princess. In tight leggings, hot pink valor and flip flops, Yamulla throws on all the Southern charm to sell them on Jesus. Father Murphy is the voice of reason, who in between bites of banana pudding, enlightens them all to certain decrees of Catholicism, forcing the sisters and Melissa to question their own misinterpretations of religious dogmas.

Photos by Lee Wexler

As typical with sisters, one is sweet and unsure; the other is aggressive and hot-tempered. They are true Southern ladies of biblical proportions. While Mary is ready to barricade the fort against the forces of evil that Melissa seems to represent (Protestant white trash), Margaret is much more open to listening to Melissa’s perspective. Demanding that Father Murphy set things straight, Mary is mortified when she learns that the Catholic faith also believes that earthly bodies will rise and go to Heaven—one of the many tenants that Melissa is preaching which Mary is convinced is a lie: “You Christian Delinquent!” This sets her off in a fury to denounce herself from the Catholic faith; she rails in her denial for excommunication which Father Murphy explains to her one cannot do to themselves.

Both actresses are defenders of the faith with a scent of lavender and hot sauce. Director Katrin Hilbe gives leeway for her actors to explore the emotional life of their characters with the rich dialogue created by Smith. Mary defends herself righteously with lines such as “That is the way the Lord made it’s not my fault.” Margaret, bothered and bewildered by the contractions Melissa offers: “I just want to be buried next to somebody I know.” Sweet Melissa justifies her need to convert her wayward hostesses with retorts like “Catholics are just people too when you take away their religion.” Her phone goes off randomly at perfect times in the action with the "Mission: Impossible" theme song ringtone, enhancing the dilemma she faces trying to help guide her new friends to the true way to Jesus.

The Cell Theatre is a cozy performance space that invites the audience into a realistic home environment. The set encompassed the entire space besides the round seating for the audience. A grand piano with family portraits, a Faulknerian settee, doorways off to a kitchen and backyard, and wooden cabinets full of unopened Scotch all create the mood of old school Catholic Georgia. The use of the stairway and upper floor as part of the action was also very effective. When Mary preaches down to the others in her dismay and denunciation of Catholicism, the contrast of the giant mural of El Greco's "Christ Carrying the Cross" on the stairway wall further enhances the play's themes.

After the ammo smoke settles, they all are left shell-shocked with doubts about their religion, while also realizing they have been stripped bare of the canonical veil and are left eating their own humble pie. Through Hilbe’s direction and the ensemble of designers and actors, we see a clear picture of the battle for faith in us all. While letting us laugh at a very deep issue of the dangers of dogmatic religious beliefs, Hilbe's interpretation of Smith's masterpiece leaves us all reflecting on our own belief systems and eating a bit of humble pie, too.

The Savannah Disputation is running until Dec. 20 at Nancy Manocherian's Cell Theatre (338 West 23rd St. between 8th and 9th Aves.) in Manhattan. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased by calling OvationTix at 212-352-3101 or visiting https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/952841 or www.meandsheproductions.org.

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A Classic Coming-Of-Age Tale

We all want to know what happened to Tiny Tim, don’t we? Did he grow up healthy and strong? What was his relationship with Scrooge? Did he meet a girl and live happily ever after? The award-winning combination of playwright Alan Knee and lyricist Andre Catrini behind The Astonishing Times of Timothy Cratchit create their concept of what might have happened to Tim and it is magically “astonishing.” Knee and Catrini have a unique and darkly ethereal view of the possibilities of our favorite childhood characters and what happens when they (and we grow up). With a beautiful set, seamless score, perfect casting, and truly inspired direction by Thomas Coté, this thoughtfully written musical brings us back to our favorite Christmas story. It is the grown-up version of the classic tale that reflects the real spirit of life with an authentic Dickens' flair. It is the tale of the true value of our lives and loves and the many lessons learned as we follow our destiny. 

As soon as attendees walk into the cozy, intimate Workshop Theater, we are transported into the era of Dickens. The set, designed by Craig Napoliello, was so specific in detail and every piece had its significance in creating the mood and tone of the play. Under the musical direction of Nathaniel Beliveau, a three-piece orchestra settled into their designated stage area. Consummate in their musical skills, the trio was very much a part of the story. One could imagine them accompanying Nancy in "Oliver Twist." It was a pure joy to watch them involved in the characters’ lives as much as we were, while also playing Catrini’s score beautifully. The costumes designed by Kimberley Jean Windbiel were eerily accurate from the colors to the flow of the fabric. Each costume fit the character perfectly.

Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

While it is a big play in a small space, Coté's direction cleanly created a space for the actors to move and tell their story. It never lagged or wandered; we were always caught up in the moment and delighted by the revelry and magic. He let the actors play. Nathan Gardner was just what one expected Tim as a young man to be. Optimistic and hopeful—a mesh of Pip and Oliver. His wide-eyed wonder at the world and his vulnerability in contrast with his confident repartee with the audience make us believe in Tim. We want him to follow his dreams. His is a delightful yet painful coming-of-age story. Having been taken in by Scrooge after his father’s death, Tim has the option to take over his mentor’s business or go off in search of his own destiny. Of course, he chooses the latter, breaking the heart of Scrooge. While we are sad for Scrooge, we root for Tim in his journey and applaud his success as he grows from his experiences into a more mature young man who realizes his potential as an artist.

Robert Stattel was magnificent as Scrooge. We empathized with him in his sorrow over Tim’s departure. In his perfect timing as he banters with Mrs. Linden (Joanie Schumacher) in the charming song, "A Cup of Tea," he endears us and wins our affections. Through Stattel’s interpretation of Scrooge, we are provoked to think of issues for the elderly in this age, so often cast aside. The relationship between Scrooge and Tim really reflect these timely moral issues. A son must leave and a parent must feel the emptiness of being left behind with just the memories. This bittersweet lesson is enhanced by Stattel’s poignant and moving performance. For example, when Tim confesses, “I feel like a blank piece of paper/like an emptiness echoes inside me." Scrooge entreats: “Empty? How can you feel empty when everything about you is alive?” With these insightful lyrics and lines, we feel the young man’s lust for life and impatience for adventure, in contrast with the old man’s awareness of how fleeting it all is and his desire to just be with the person he loves.

photo by Gerry Goodstein

Once Tim leaves the safety of Scrooge’s home, he finds himself in a cheap tenement—a real Dickens' Hot L Baltimore, complete with a dancing parade of characters played by a small ensemble who were hysterically versatile in their segue from role-to-role. Under the skillful choreography of Madeline Jaye, the rhythm and timing of move-to-move made transitions smooth and sleek. Mrs. Poole (played by Virginia Roncetti) as she bossily assures Tim in the song “A Clean Establishment"; Mr. Goldsmith (played by John Martello) always looking for his teeth; and Miss Tulips (played by Kendall Rileigh) pining seductively for her far away lover—all stay true to the spirit of Dickens, in a soiree of song that is classic yet relevant and original. We are as mesmerized as Tim at his new surroundings as they frenetically frolic around him and make him feel at home.

And, of course, there is a girl. When Tim shows interest in the maid, Lucy (played saucily by Hanley Smith), she retorts in her song to him, "Boys Like You": "Silly predictable boys/thinkin' 'cause they know books and art/that makes 'em grown 'n makes 'em smart." The chemistry between Smith and Gardner is felt right away and we look forward to watching their young love blossom. 

As Tim goes off to search for fame and fortune, he stumbles upon the rare opportunity to become the assistant to the great clown, Grimaldi. D.C. Anderson as Grimaldi was sublimely humorous and light on his feet. He was reminiscent of Bernardo Bertolucci in "Children of Paradise" with a bit of the Cowardly Lion comically sashaying around. The supporting cast were Federico Fellini-esque in their playful and skillful swirl of enticement—a fusion of all the motley bunch so wonderfully created by the imaginative lyrics and score. Smith with her lyrical twirling as the flirtatious Aria and Kendall Rileigh as the slinky and flexible Mo-Mo delighted us along with the rest of the quirky troupe (Andy Ingalls and Jeff Paul) in the song, “A Modest Man.”

A powerful musical incites an emotional tilt-a-whirl in the audience. From the heights of excitement at the possibilities of Tim’s success, the story takes us down to the dark abyss of loss as well. It is crushing when Tim returns to an ailing Scrooge. In the song, “The Attic,” Stattel sings reflectively,"The world had given up/but I saw you and I knew/in an endless sort of ways/when all my days are gone/my world could live on in you." His words to Catrini’s music hit at that universal core, really touching that place in our hearts where we feel how precious life and love are. 

While there is room for the expansion of characters—one was left a bit dissatisfied with the writer’s thin explanation to Tim’s family, nor was there any reference to Scrooge’s nephew and his wife. They could have been added to the story although Robert Meksin does a noteworthy job of bringing Bob Cratchit to life in Tim's flashbacks. There were sections in the play where Tim told us the story when we would have preferred to have seen the action, but economy of space was clearly mandatory, and the ensemble talent of the cast with an impressive setting made it work. Gardner’s finale song, “My World,” leaves us with hope for life and all it brings us, both sad and joyous. We see the possibilities of a wonderful world like we always dreamed of as children when we were reading or watching "A Christmas Carol."

This should become a yearly classic on Broadway for sure. Or at least a Tim Burton film. With a bigger cast and stage, it will entertain audiences for a long time to come. It will be one of the “to do for Christmas” traditions for any who have the pleasure of seeing it.

The Astonishing Times of Timothy Cratchit is running at The Workshop Theater (312 West 36th St., 4th Fl. between 8th and 9th Aves.) in Manhattan until Dec. 19. Performances are at 7 p.m. on Thursday and at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday; matinees are on Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Ticket prices: $18 for general admission and $15 for students and seniors. For tickets, call OvationTix at 866-811-4111 or visit www.workshoptheater.org.

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Chasing the American Dream

The Golden Bride ("Di Goldene Kale"), a joyful operetta from 1923 performed on the compact stage at the Museum of Jewish Heritage by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, is set in a small Russian village and begins with a tongue-in-cheek song about money. In Yiddish with English and Russian supertitles, the cast sings “Oi, Oi, The Dollar” when Goldele, a young woman who has been raised by another family learns that her father, who moved to America when she was a child, has died and left her a fortune. Thus begins a tale that folds real-world politics (the metamorphosing face of Russia, immigration and the pursuit of money in America) into a fairytale of love and marriage.

Goldele, buoyantly played by Rachel Policar, loves Misha, the son of the family she has grown up with. Misha is handsome and honorable. They claim their loves goes back to childhood but we can also see why she loves him: Cameron Johnson's Misha is reminiscent of a young Leonardo DiCaprio with his movie star good looks and understated seriousness. Goldele's Uncle Benjamin (played by Bob Ader), however, wants her to move to America and marry his American-born son Jerome. Expertly played by Glenn Seven Allen, Jerome is the opposite of Misha: he is square-jawed and jaunty and speaks of baseball and jazz. Jerome is not interested in Goldele anyway: after a few weeks in the Russian village, he's fallen in love with Khanele played by the wonderful Jillian Gottlieb, who is physically and vocally light as a feather.

The story has many elements of a Shakespearean comedy: a young girl grows up without her mother, but when her father dies and leaves her a fortune, she wants to find her mother. Goldele's urge to find her mother is so strong that she declares to Misha and all the other suitors in the village that she will marry anyone who can can find her mother.

In Act II, everyone comes to America including Goldele's surrogate mother, father, Khanale, and Pinchas, the village matchmaker. Bruce Rebold, wonderfully comic as Pinchas, brings out the  central role of the matchmaker's role in Jewish culture (think Fiddler on the Roof and the song "Matchmaker, Matchmaker"). Pinchas hasn't lost any time once he gets to America and offers suitors to the maids who work for Goldele's uncle. They all seem promising enough, but then we learn they have a fault or two. One is rich but blind. Another is kind but missing a leg. And one is tall and handsome but works two jobs: as a window washer and as a waiter at Yonah Schimmel's, the famous knish place still standing on Houston Street.

Although Goldele doesn't need a matchmaker, she may need a shrink. Why does she offer her hand to any suitor who can find her mother when Misha is clearly the best candidate? The others: a deaf shoemaker, a roly-poly cantor, and a tailor, are bumbling and seemingly inept. They are definitely no match for the handsome and worldly Misha. But the primal draw to find her mother is understandable. Perhaps knowing our parents completes us.

Everyone quickly adapts to the rich life in America and play tennis, drink cocktails at tea time and buy new clothing. They continue to speak Yiddish once in the new country, but Goldele's (surrogate) mother, Toybe (played by Lisa Fishman) likes to try out her English. When she shows her husband, Pinchas, a new dress, she asks: “How do you like she?” His response: “You look like a delicious beef roast,” is all the funnier because it hits home the personal or familiar struggle with English as a foreign language. Then he asks: "Why are we speaking English?"

The Golden Bride touches upon some of the basic struggles that immigrants have and the question of why people leave their homeland. The reality of history looms behind the family. In 1923, when the play was written, the changing political climate after the Russian Revolution of 1917, as well as World War I (which ended in 1919), would result in poverty, famine and persecution for many. The family is aware that America is a hopeful place even to them who are lucky enough to enter into a life of wealth and ease.

Beautifully rendered sets by John Dinning are highlighted in the final act when the family gathers for a masquerade party. Finishing in true Shakespearean form, a masked stranger appears who brings news to Goldele about Misha and about her mother. But who is this man? And why does he know so much? Although we know, it’s impossible not to feel like cheering when the truth is revealed to Goldele as well.

The cast is superb and their infinite vocal talent is allowed to shine under the aegis of conductor and musical director Zalmen Mlotek with choreography and musical staging by Merete Muenter. The full-bodied singing and dancing accompanied by a live orchestra in The Golden Bride is an especially rare treat in Off-Broadway theater today.

The Golden Bride runs until Jan. 3 in the Edmond J. Safra Hall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Place between 1st Place and Little West St.) in Manhattan. Check the Museum of Jewish Heritage for the full performance schedule. For tickets, call OvationTix at 866-811-4111 or visit the website.

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Family vs. Video Game

Picture perfect families in a managed neighborhood begin to crack when a popular video game starts feeling like reality. Jennifer Haley’s dark comedy Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom shows just how fragile family bonds are when a community encounters a crisis and parents are faced against their teenage children in order to survive. Veteran film director Joel Schumacher adds his vision of Haley’s material and directs a full cast from The Flea Theater’s resident volunteer acting company, The Bats.

The production begins with a voice (Justin Ahdoot) giving instructions to pick up a claw hammer and enter a house. Theatergoers feel like they are walking through Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion and eventually realize they are witnessing a video game called Neighborhood 3. Brazen high school student Makaela (Adelind Horan) flirts with classmate Trevor (Alex Haynes) in her home and offers him Vicodin. Trevor declines the Vicodin and only wants to play Neighborhood 3. Makaela does not want to play the video game because she finds it creepy.  The video game uses satellite technology to map out Makaela and Trevor’s own neighborhood. Trevor believes “sometimes you need a place to be sick” and Neighborhood 3 offers such a venue. Players kill zombies who closely resemble people that the players know in reality.

Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom continues on with revolving scenes of self-absorbed parents who are aloof but act concerned about their children playing the mysterious, violent video game. The zealous teenage children are gung-ho about getting to the game’s next level with other players. It is not until the latter half of the play that the two worlds—parents and children—start to collide. Theatergoers who are used to experiencing a play through the eyes of a single main character may struggle since there are 17 characters in this production. The video game does not really have a backstory so there is not a lot of depth to the antagonist.

The video game is like an omniscient intelligence that is not seen but heard and capable of creating horrific events. Theatergoers might feel detached after seeing one scene after another with new characters since the production’s advancement relies on its plot and not character development. After a while, it is like watching recycled characters going through a similar experience without the story moving a few inches until the predictable ending shows up. Following just one family as they struggle through Neighborhood 3 would give theatergoers the opportunity to grasp the depth of what the characters are really experiencing.

The casting and performances are outstanding and Eric Folks is flawless as Steve—a husband whose “wife is taking a break from [their] family so [he is] kind of holding down the fort.” The script provides enough space for the actors to interpret the material and make character choices. Folks brings physical humor and a natural 1950s feel as a father struggling to raise his defiant teenage daughter Chelsea (Madeline Mahoney). As a corporate manager, Steve terminates employees who are not performing, but at home, Steve cannot sack his only child when she does not meet his standards. In the driveway scene, Steve confronts Chelsea and demands that she go back inside their home. Before their emotional exchange turns violent, Steve expresses that he does not know Chelsea anymore and Steve adds humor to the scene by awkwardly walking across the stage. Folks effectively generates charm and sympathy, and then leaves audience members wondering if his character is really as pure as Steve’s clean-cut looks suggest.

Scenic designer Simon Harding creates a space where theatergoers enter by walking across artificial grass and sit in front of cutout trees with a slanted backdrop that resembles a public skateboarding ramp. The space does not feel like a movie set from Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands or Beetlejuice, but more like the neighborhood from A Nightmare on Elm Street.  Lighting designer Brian Aldous’ genius use of subtle lighting coming from a tree trunk allows for the trunk to also act as a refrigerator.

The value of the production is in the entertaining and morbid tone about massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), like World of Warcraft, influencing our social interactions and shaping our family dynamics. Haley relies on style and exploits improbable and exaggerated situations in a missed attempt at creating a farce because of the production’s lukewarm plot twists. The play can travel for decades as long as future generations of theatergoers relate to the subject matter. For theatergoers who are only interested in seeing Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom because Schumacher is attached as the director, this might not be enough to carry the show. This production is recommended for theatergoers who enjoy seeing a fresh slant on popular culture and are not solely attached to character development or plot depth.

Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom runs until Dec. 20 at The Flea Theater (41 White St. between Church St. and Broadway) in Manhattan. Evening performances are Wednesday-Monday at 7 p.m. with no matinee performances. Tickets range from $15-$105. To purchase tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit TheFlea.org.

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Sleep-Deprived Shenanigans

Back in 1959, the Off-Broadway musical Once Upon a Mattress made a star of Carol Burnett. It’s a broad, farcical show that one might not expect from the involvement of Mary Rodgers, the daughter of Richard Rodgers (the book is by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer; the lyrics by Barer), though her music is as lush with melody as her father’s. For the Transport Group’s production, director Jack Cummings III has cast several notable “downtown” performers in major roles, and the result is goofy, spoofy, cartoonish fun.
 
The show is based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale “The Princess and the Pea.” It’s about a prince, Dauntless the Drab (Jason SweetTooth Williams), who is eager to marry but whose mother, the wicked Queen Aggravain, has an unhealthy inclination to keep him single for life. Dauntless’s father, King Sextimus (David Greenspan), sympathizes with his son but is mute, the victim of a curse that will last “until the mouse devours the hawk.” The prince, meanwhile, chafes at his bachelorhood, as do all the citizens, for nobody can marry till Dauntless does. And desperately in need to marry are heartthrob Sir Harry (Zak Resnick) and his pregnant-but-not-yet-showing girlfriend, Lady Larken (Jessica Fontana).
 
Since this is a fairy tale, the wicked queen (the towering drag performer John Epperson, a.k.a. “Lypsinka,” plays Aggravain) has pre-matrimonial tests. They vary, but they have baffled all comers, and no eligible princesses are left. Desperate, Harry and Dauntless prevail on Aggravain to let Harry seek out spousal possibilities far afield. When he returns from his quest, he has found one in a distant, bog-riddled kingdom: the Princess Winnifred—the part that launched Burnett's career.
 
As Winnifred, the typically freewheeling Jackie Hoffman employs her trademark sarcasm and brashness more sparingly than usual. Known for playing shrill, blowsy characters (e.g. in On the Town and Hairspray), she has a remarkably lovely singing voice and puts it to good use in a song called “Shy” (and she is persuasive as a shy person, even if one knows better) and the second act’s “Happily Ever After.” Although too old for the part (Williams is at least a decade younger), Hoffman conveys a persuasive winsomeness and easily makes one suspend disbelief. After all, a towering man in lipstick is playing the queen—and the juxtaposition of Epperson and Hoffman is a delight to behold.
 
The book isn’t top-drawer and bits are dated—there’s a chauvinist moment when Winnifred advises Larken to apologize to Harry even though Larken is not at fault—but the actors do well by it. Cummings has let Epperson play to and even with the audience at times, and it works, although some of the actor’s schtick wears thin and may depend on one’s tolerance for drag.
 
Rodgers’s score is lovely and varied; in addition to the strenuous dance “The Spanish Panic” and the tuneful “Normandy,” there is the comic number “Man to Man Talk,” when Sextimus in gestures tries to tell Dauntless about the birds and bees.
 
Most notable is “Very Soft Shoes,” a dance for the Jester that’s not really germane to anything. With a combination of ballet and soft shoe (the choreography is by Scott Rink), and Cory Lingner’s terrific performance, the number becomes the closest thing to a show-stopper in this production.
 
While classics by Tchaikovsky and Handel are among the familiar options for entertainment during the holidays, Cummings deserves a hallelujah for spotting the possibilities of Once Upon a Mattress for something a bit different and casting it with first-rate zanies. It fits right in.
 
The musical Once Upon a Mattress plays at the Abrons Art Center (466 Grand St. at Pitt St.) in Manhattan through Jan. 3. Evening performance are at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday-Sunday; matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday with the exception of Dec. 20, which has a 3 p.m. matinee). For tickets, call OvationTix at 866-811-4111 or visit the website.
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Noble Jazz Masters

The Anderson twins, Peter and Will, are back with a new show at 59E59 Theaters, where two Decembers ago they brought Le Jazz Hot: How the French Saved Jazz, a revue about the attraction of Paris for jazz musicians; that show earned them a Drama Desk nomination. Their new creation, The Count Meets the Duke, has a narrower focus—the lives of jazz titans Count Basie and Duke Ellington—and it is more of a straightforward tribute. Created and directed by the brothers, it’s not only an evening of superb musicianship but as informative as their earlier works, which include The Anderson Twins Play the Fabulous Dorseys

Subtitled The Anderson Twins Play Basie and Ellington, the show focuses on Count Basie in the first half, with Will narrating; Pete takes up the honors later for Ellington. There’s some crossover—both jazzmen had great respect for each other and even played together. The twins have been typically rigorous in digging up rare interviews and stills to be projected behind them, so there’s a clip of Basie praising Ellington, for instance. Also hanging on the walls are several drawings of the subjects by the late New York Times illustrator Al Hirschfeld, himself a jazz enthusiast.

As hosts, Will, who plays alto saxophone, clarinet, and flute, and Pete, who is on tenor saxophone and clarinet, lack the polish of trained actors, but their unassuming charm hits the right note for the intimate setting, and their passion is infectious. Even if one isn’t a jazz aficionado, their recitation of players whose names mean nothing to a listener makes it clear that the people who own the names are important in their field. Although, as Will notes, Thelonius Monk once said, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture,” the brothers manage to impart a good deal of fascinating information and draw one into their musical orbit.

There are plenty of jazz milestones mentioned: Duke Ellington’s appearance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, when tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves played 27 choruses (six or seven was the usual number), a woman jumped on stage and discarded an article of clothing for each chorus, and a riot nearly ensued. There’s the story of Basie’s upbringing: born in Red Bank, N.J., he played piano for silent films and in bars as a teenager. Later he took to the road, finding musical work with traveling burlesque shows. Finding himself in Kansas City in the 1930s—a mecca for the best jazz in the country—he buffaloed bandleader Bennie Moten, a pianist, into believing that in New York it was all the rage to have a second piano, and he got himself hired for the job.

There are film clips such as Count Basie’s bizarre appearance with his band in the middle of the desert in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles (1974), and Ellington alongside James Stewart in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder in 1959, as well as his guest shot on What’s My Line in 1953. Or the Duke waxing humorous on rhythm: “One never snaps one’s fingers on the beat—it’s considered aggressive.” There’s even a rare clip of Billy Strayhorn at the piano; his orchestrations greatly enhanced Ellington’s compositions.

All that, however, is just the background to the main event: the playing. The show features Jeb Patton on a Steinway, Clovis Nicolas on bass and Phil Stewart on drums. Whether on swing numbers like Lester Young’s “Tickle Toe,” written for Basie, and Ellington’s “Main Stem,” or on slower, more languid ones like Neal Hefti’s “Li’l Darlin,” written for Basie, and Ellington’s “The Star-Crossed Lovers,” an excerpt of a 1957 album in which the Duke focused on Shakespeare’s plays, the five-man combo is terrific. Along the way, every performer gets to shine. Pete has a solo on the clarinet in “Ad Lib on Nippon,” in which Patton has a fine solo too. Patton also performs a piano version of “Corner Pocket,” written by Freddie Green for Basie’s orchestra. There’s even a holiday excerpt from Ellington and Strayhorn’s version of Nutcracker Suite called “Sugar Rum Cherry”—a jazzy version of you-know-what.

If you’re looking for high-quality musicianship skillfully interwoven with intellectual enlightenment for the holidays, then bop over to The Count Meets the Duke.

The jazz revue The Count Meets the Duke runs through Jan. 3 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St. between Park and Madison Aves.) in Manhattan. Tickets are $25 through Dec. 20; $35 starting on Dec. 22. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, and at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Matinee performances are at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday and 3:30 p.m. on Sunday. For tickets, call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or visit 59E59.org.

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A 'Mansplanation' Set to Music

The legendary director Harvey Cocks once claimed, “An actor must never be afraid to make a fool of himself.” And real men shouldn’t be afraid to be fools, either. At least that is the perspective of the creators of Real Men: The Musical, the playfully vaudevillian show at the New World Stages, an Off-Broadway multi-theater venue in Midtown Manhattan. This new award-winning musical comedy has been brought to New York City from the Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables, Florida. The show is cleverly written by Paul Louis and Nick Santa Maria, with impeccable musical direction by Martin Landry and exquisite arrangements by Manny Schvartzman.

Real Men: The Musical is a man’s view of men. As the characters read to us from the Book of More Men, we learn the truth about what goes on in a real man’s mind. Apparently, not much besides sex and sports. At least they are able to laugh at themselves about it. And sing about it. And play with puppets (and themselves) about it. As the piece follows the men in their journey into married midlife suburban crisis, we learn that they do want to understand why they are so stupid. According to the playbill, the play is set in “Present Day” to suggest that some things never change. It also reads that the place is "Everywhere," but Boynton Beach and Boca Raton sure are recognizable. Jerry Seinfeld's parents would love it. And who doesn't love South Florida?

The musical stars Stephen G. Anthony (I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change) along with the writers, Louis (from the 1995 TV series "Jelly Bean Jungle”) and Maria (Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know). Under the manly guidance of award-winning director David Arisco, these performers give us a hilarious and harmonious examination into the minds of men. All three performers effortlessly mastered the melodies and harmonies; a real twisted Rat Pack with the Three Stooges. While they were campy at times, that was what they were striving for and they did it well. The inclusion of puppet women heightened their point that men see women as objects with talking heads, breasts and derrières. 

Some of the lyrics were hysterical; some were a bit dated—heard them from my ex-husband and his father, in South Florida years ago. But again, they reiterate the point that men are limited in their thinking and that it is a universal disease. The production definitely caters to the older bridge and tunnel crowd. Married and divorced couples will get it but younger theater-goers might need variety in the music and a younger perspective (maybe the son in the song "That’s My Boy" could appear). The music was well-written and performed, reminiscent of the old great standards—but a bit repetitive in certain spots. There was most certainly room for a rock song, or other style of music, too. And while the men can sing, and move well, an audience does like to see nice legs. Not that Anthony's legs weren’t nice—he looks great in drag. While it was especially delightful to hear these real men’s confessions, the character development could have been further expanded. 

Particular songs that really hit the mark were "I’m Not with Nick" and "Married Man’s Lament," a hysterical number sung by Louis with help from Maria, Anthony and a giant penis. "That’s My Boy" was a real surprise. It was flawlessly carried by Nick, who has a real sense of character, comedic timing and honest acting. Anthony had a powerful voice, nice hair and could really move his hips. Paul was a hoot with the puppets; he really knew how to work them smoothly into his performance. Plus, he looked great in his cowboy outfit and tutu. They all had undeniable chemistry and it was clear they were enjoying themselves. So we enjoyed them, too. We all knew these fellows. They were our fathers and husbands in true form. It was nice to laugh at them and not get in trouble.

Real Men: The Musical is running through Jan. 2, 2016 at New World Stages (340 West 50th St. between 8th and 9th Aves.) in Manhattan. Check the performance schedule here. Tickets range from $59-$79 and can be purchased by calling 212-239-6200 or visiting Telecharge.com.

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Uganda Comes to New York City

In 2005, Griffin Matthews made the nearly 7,000-mile journey from the skyscrapers of New York City to the hills of Uganda to become one of the many American volunteers looking to “find themselves” and “change the world” by building schools in Africa. Now, Matthews stars in a musical about his journey and in doing so, brings the lives of those in Uganda to a New York City stage. Sound a little cliché? Perhaps it is, but Invisible Thread is a feel-good story brought to life by a clever script, catchy score, uplifting message and talented cast.

Co-written by Griffin Matthews and real-life partner/composer Matt Gould, Invisible Thread began as a piece titled Witness Uganda which won the Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theater in 2014. Griffin was a struggling actor booted from his church’s choir for being gay when he made the decision to leave his boyfriend Ryan (Corey Mach) behind to sign on as a volunteer. Instead of simply extolling this decision, Invisible Thread calls into question the reason that people perform altruistic deeds in the first place. Is it to help others or to help ourselves feel good? And does the motivation really matter if there is good coming from it?

Through self-deprecating humor and witty lines, both Ryan and Griffin acknowledge their somewhat stereotypical problems. “Imagine, a gay in the tenor section!” Upon arriving in Uganda at the compound where he will be building a school, Griffin meets a woman who is ironically named Joy (Adeola Role). She has built up a wall to protect herself from the constant stream of volunteers who she has learned she will never see again despite their promises. Griffin also meets Jacob (Michael Luwoye), Joy’s brother who works at the compound. They quickly form a bond and Jacob reveals what is really going on with all the schools the volunteers are building. Pastor Jim, who we never meet, immediately sells them for a profit once the volunteers leave.  

Looking for answers, Griffin follows Jacob to the market, where he encounters and befriends four teenage orphans—Ronny (Tyrone Davis, Jr.), Grace (Kristolyn Lloyd), Eden (Nicolette Robinson) and Ibrahim (Jamar Williams). Discouraged by the news that his volunteer efforts with the school will result in no real change, Griffin decides that he will instead teach these four teens and Jacob in an abandoned library. As things progress, Griffin realizes that he may be in over his head. His relationships with the students and his determination to make a difference strengthen despite the obstacles.

Throughout the musical, contemporary songs mix with ones of a more Sub-Saharan styling but all are catchy and moving. The choreography by Sergio Trujillo and Darrell Grand Moultrie complements the music wonderfully and adds an energy and power to the performance that is further enhanced by stunning, soulful vocals from the ensemble. A dirt stage is slightly mismatched with the two projection screens, calling attention to the differences between New York City and Uganda.

Diane Paulus directs a talented cast with Role delivering a standout performance as Joy. Mach does what he can with the role of Ryan, though the character seems somewhat less developed than it could be and appears to be an evolving piece in the script based on previous iterations of the production. The climax in the second act seems somewhat muddled, though everything comes together in the end, perhaps too perfectly to properly portray the complicated topics addressed. Invisible Thread is a production which is clearly a result of passion and purpose but it manages to avoid becoming preachy or self-promotional.

Invisible Thread is playing at Second Stage Theater (305 West 43rd St. between 8th and 9th Aves.) through December 27. Tickets range from $69-$125 and can be purchased by calling 212-246-4422 or visiting www.2st.com

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Nightmare on the High Seas

If art is about digging beneath the surfaces of things and restoring wholeness to human experience, run to see In The Soundless Awe, an important new play by Jayme McGhan and Andy Pederson now playing at Access Theater until Dec. 12. One of three plays in repertory with the New Light Theater Project (NLTP), it is beautifully produced and imaginatively directed by Sarah Norris, a founding artistic director of the NLTP company.

At the heart of the play is Captain Charles Butler McVay III, a highly decorated third generation Navy officer and the commander of the U.S.S. Indianapolis when two Japanese torpedoes struck it just after midnight on July 30, 1945. Three hundred men were killed in the first 12 minutes it took the ship to sink. Over the next five days, 900 more languished unsheltered on the high seas fighting sun, sharks, dehydration, starvation and exhaustion while anticipating rescue any minute. Three SOS signals had been sent as the ship went down but 600 more men would die before survivors were accidentally sighted by pilots on a routine patrol and rescued. It was the largest loss of life in U.S. naval history. McVay was court-martialed and found guilty of “failing to zigzag,” a way of steering to avoid enemy fire, although this maneuver was technically at the discretion of the commanding officer (himself).

How does one plumb such an experience: five days, 900 men and the mothers, fathers, wives and children forever caught in its vast net? This might have been a play about a Navy cover-up: its failure to provide standard destroyer escort for the ship (although six days earlier a destroyer was similarly torpedoed on the same route); and its mangled rescue operation that inexcusably left 900 men in the cold Pacific waters for five interminable days. But In The Soundless Awe is less about events—a sinking, court martial and suicide—than about an experience that is simply beyond the ability of the mind to grasp. What do we do with such an experience? What does it look like? What are its consequences for the survivors? For the families of those who did not survive? And for our navy and military, which in deflecting blame to one of its own, set the stage, the writers imply, for cover-ups to come in Vietnam and elsewhere. For us?

This is a deftly written and ambitious script that zigzags back and forth in real-time, in remembered time and in imagined time not so much as a way to tell us a story as to imitate the flow of mind itself in its perpetual return to the frozen moment, to the five days on the high seas which will forever imprison those who lived through it. On stage the bodies of the actors freeze and unfreeze as they play out the bits and pieces of this terrible scene: attempts of the Captain and his crew to distract themselves, delusions of help on a horizon, sharing the little water they had, discovering that a mate has lost a leg to a shark, the dying of the men one by one. A suggestive and repeating motif, the Gray Lady (Hallie Wage), a beautiful and tempting siren of death and release, pulls the dying off stage but also dances with McVay. The Captain imagines a meeting with his stern and distant father and plays cards with friends years after his court martial, but his mind always returns to those five days on the water until he steps out of time itself by raising a gun to his head.

The actors work in a theatrical style in which choreographed movement and gesture, video, lighting and sound matter as much as, or even more, than the words spoken. A stage direction includes a note: “nightmarish and Kafkaesque,” but so much more in the production is not in the script—the eerie blue light that bathes the stage when we first enter the theater; video clips noting each day on the water and how many men are still living. Phantasmagoria and metaphor are the keys to the excavation of the inner world of McVay, but also to a shared human interior. The creative direction of Norris and her brilliant creative and production team deepen the script and give the play its juice and strange beauty. The ensemble, who take on a variety of roles, are outstanding. The two actors who play McVay as a young man and as an old man, Chris Kipiniak and Leo Farley, are convincing.

In The Soundless Awe is a well-executed, well-conceived and beautifully produced play. What makes it important is that it enlarges the violated human dimension of a terrible event in our shared American history. It opens our hearts and imagination to the wartime experience of men who sacrificed for our common welfare. 

In Soundless Awe” runs until Dec. 12 at Access Theater (380 Broadway, 4th Floor, between White and Walker Sts.) in lower Manhattan. Performances run Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. Check NewLightTheaterProject.com for the exact schedule. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased by calling 800-838-3006 or visiting BrownPaperTickets.com. Limited blocks of free and discount tickets for veterans or active-duty personnel are available. Inquire at NewLightTheaterProject@gmail.com. 

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House of No

It is December 31, 1899. The Stanhope family has gathered to close up the home of Alison Stanhope, whose poetry has become famous in the nearly two decades since her death. The surviving Stanhope siblings—the slightly strange Agatha and straight-laced John—have carefully controlled their famous sister’s public reputation. Now, on the eve of a new century, the discovery of a secret stash of Alison’s writings exposes a stark divide between the generations.

Inspired by the life of Emily Dickinson, Alison’s House by playwright Susan Glaspell, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1931 despite negative reviews and a meager two-week run. It was one of a string of controversial picks by the Pulitzer committee that eventually led to the creation of the New York Drama Critics' Circle. Metropolitan Playhouse’s production may be the first uncut staging of the play in New York since 1931.

At the heart of Alison’s House is the question of whether duty and honor or personal happiness and self-realization are paramount. Elsa Stanhope, who alienated her father John and gave up her good name to run away with her married lover, represents the values of the younger generation. John and Agatha hold up the example of Alison, who in a similar circumstance chose her good name, became a recluse, and subsumed her love in writing.

Unfortunately, artistic director Alex Roe’s respectful staging of Alison’s House does not reveal a forgotten masterpiece. While the text is solid, charming and often amusing, the central conflict between Victorian values and a youthful desire for personal fulfillment must have seemed out of date even at the time of the original production. Some of the lack of urgency is due to the production’s uneven pace. While the bulk of the production is performed in a leisurely fashion, the actors race through the climactic moments of both acts.

Another problem comes from the lack of a strong antagonist. John D. McNally’s John Stanhope is so genial and warm that his role as the representative of the past, a forbidding father who upholds honor at all costs, becomes blurred. Other cast members struggle, too. Blaine Smith can’t quite overcome the fact that he seems a decade too old to play the puckish Ted Stanhope, while Matt McAllister and Katharine Scarborough come across as visitors from another broader play.

Standouts in the cast include John Long as the weary, harassed Eben Stanhope, and Anne Bates as his wife, Louise, who cannot earn love despite molding herself into an ideal Victorian wife and daughter-in-law. Amanda Jones’ performance as Elsa is the highlight of the evening. Her touching performance drives scene after scene in the final act.

Roe has staged the play on a compact thrust stage, which transforms during intermission from a library in the public part of the house to Alison’s private bedroom, where all her secrets are revealed. The set serves the play well, especially during scenes involving many characters, although there are some problems with sightlines during intimate scenes (especially the play’s climax). Sidney Fortner’s costume design neatly illustrates the generational and social divides between the characters in Alison’s House. While the elder Stanhopes are clothed in sober browns and blacks, the younger members of the family—especially Ted and Elsa—wear brilliant red.

Metropolitan Playhouse’s production is a solid presentation of an underwhelming script. Still, it is a good opportunity to see a rarely staged work by the much-anthologized Glaspell. Perhaps Glaspell’s farewell to the Victorian age, with its rigid, hoary values, can still speak to the present day. Even now, young people struggle to find fulfillment in ways that make their parents want to shake their heads and say, as John Stanhope does, “I cannot bear your youth.”

Alison's House is running at the Metropolitan Playhouse (220 East 4th St. between Avenue A and B) in Manhattan until Dec. 13. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets: $25 for general admission, $20 for students/seniors and $10 for children. To purchase tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit www.metropolitanplayhouse.org/tickets.

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Gay Rites Now

Steve, the ambitious new play by Mark Gerrard being presented by The New Group, belongs to a particular subset of gay theater that focuses exclusively on a group of homosexuals. The prototype, Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band (1968), reflected the self-loathing of its closeted characters, leavened with bitchy humor. (Its one ostensibly “straight” character may have been bisexual.) Later examples—Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg and Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! (both 1994); Peter Gill’s Certain Young Men (1999); and Chuck Ranberg’s End of the World Party (2000)—charted the difficulty of living in the age of AIDS and celebrated the nuclear families that gay people assembled to replace marriage or because of rejection by relatives.  

Gerrard’s play may be one of the first in the genre in which matrimony is no longer off the table. Apart from that milestone, however, the interests of its characters are mundane: the exhaustion of parenting, the temptations and repercussions of adultery, and alienation by digital communication. The specter of death is present, but in the form of Ashlie Atkinson’s lesbian buddy Carrie. Dying of cancer, she is one of two best friends to Matt McGrath’s Steven, often called Steve.

Steve’s other best bud is Matt (Mario Cantone), wed to Brian (Jerry Dixon). Steve focuses on the two sets of middle-aged partners navigating the new marital landscape. Steven is 47 and married to Stephen (Malcolm Gets); they have an 8-year-old son, Zack. Matt and Brian are childless. Providing complications are two other characters: Steve, a personal trainer who is never seen, and Esteban, a fetching young Argentinean waiter/dancer (Francisco Pryor Garat) whose path continually crosses Steven’s, until the inevitable occurs. If the conceit of the names is meant to signal that all gay men face fundamentally the same issues, the device comes off as excessively precious.

First among equals is McGrath’s character, and his decency is established by the way he helps the ailing Carrie. Even with the most sallow-faced crankiness, McGrath delivers warmth and a wry wit. Recalling a trip to the beach, he says, “I thought we were all at the beach having a great time… Four middle-aged men, and our occasional lady visitor, desperately interested in the slightest recognition that we’re still sexually desirable to the sexually desirable—or even to the almost-sexually desirable—secretly afraid that we’re not, but bravely clinging to the illusion—and each other—like a jaunty, gay Raft of the Medusa.”

But Steven has learned that Stephen is having an affair with Brian. Under Cynthia Nixon’s direction, we see it conducted through ribald sexting, shown on an upstage wall by Olivia Sebesky’s projections. Steven shields Matt from the truth, even after he learns that Brian has invited trainer Steve to move in, and with Matt, become a threesome. Moreover, that arrangement has been made possible by Steven’s taking in Carrie, grown sicker with her cancer and needing a place to stay. Feeling unappreciated and betrayed by Stephen, Steven pursues Esteban. It’s all fundamentally The Seven Year Itch, but multiplied and with twists.

One problem is that one never sees the relationship Stephen and Steven have before Steven’s discovery of incriminating evidence (which he keeps to himself), so the stakes are unclear. And Gets and McGrath have scant chemistry; they’re at odds from the first, and the former has a thankless part, frequently tapping on a cellphone in his hand as the audience reads the projections.

Nixon tries to lighten the tone using Broadway show music during scene changes (and in a prelude of roughly 20 minutes, when the cast stands around an upright and sings). And Gerrard ladles on musical-theater in-jokes relentlessly. Steve laments, “What kind of God would allow the movie version of Mame?” Matt talks about his upcoming three-way: “We’re excited. Excited and scared”—one of many direct references to Stephen Sondheim. Indeed, Steve’s drink of choice is a vodka stinger.

The unsettled tone may reflect the honest bewilderment of where gay life goes from here, but it looks only marginally different from what any relationship faces, except for the issue of sex. In a piquant but fleeting moment, Gerrard suggests that fidelity is an overrated construct. As Brian boasts to the group in the climactic scene: “I came this close to making out with the most beautiful boy in the kitchen who turned out to be the most beautiful girl. And maybe we made out a little anyway.”

The New Group presents Steve at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd St. between 9th and 10th Aves.) in Manhattan through Dec. 27. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday-Friday and 8 p.m. on Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, with special matinees on Dec. 16 and 23. For tickets, visit www.thenewgroup.org

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Opposites Attract a Solution

Hard and soft qualities and everything in the middle can characterize a man’s masculinity. Mark Borkowski’s two-act comedy The Head Hunter explores masculinity through the contrast of two cousins who take on life’s challenges. Late 30’s writer Casmir (Trenton Clark) and his rugged, older cousin Salvy (Jay Rivera) come from the same family but occur to be from two different worlds.

The production feels more like a family drama and takes place during a winter in Hoboken, New Jersey in Casmir’s outdated apartment. Casmir’s white refrigerator, stove, and oven could have been from the 1950s. The worn rug, antique writing desk and wooden chair with a missing wheel give the impression that Casmir has not left his apartment in years. Casmir’s bland clothes even looks like he sleeps in them and contrasts with Salvy’s new, stylish clothes. Salvy is also taller, stronger and has more facial hair compared with his younger cousin Casmir.  The two men do not appear or sound like they are from the same neighborhood.

Salvy challenges Casmir’s ability to stand up to a movie producer who has the rights to Casmir’s screenplay. Casmir mistakenly signed his rights away and does not have enough money to hire a lawyer. Casmir says, “You're right, I was desperate. I needed the money. I needed...the attention. Somebody was recognizin' me.” Casmir and Salvy conspire to get the rights back to Casmir’s script. Casmir prefers to take a polite, gentleman approach when faced with difficult situations and Salvy resorts to brute force. When Casmir finds out that Salvy is a head hunter who decapitates people for the mob, Casmir says, “No, how do we come from the same bloodline?” Salvy says, “What, you sayin' you better [than] me?! ‘Bloodline.’ Hey, don't forget, the same guy who made Christ also made the devil. So go figure. ‘Bloodline.’” Great dialogue like these lines can be heard throughout the play and the value of the production is in Borkowski’s writing.

The writing is worthy of traveling to other markets and easily relates to the modern world. The subject matter is not only limited to New York City and our current time but has universal meaning that can apply to future generations.  Borkowski’s writing sheds insight into the varying moral and ethical principles that people adhere by. Casmir says with great honor that his deceased father had pride and Salvy says, “Pride. I love that fuckin' word. Ya know what that word is? It's an excuse, another excuse for a man to keep himself down.” Casmir counters by stating that his father still had a conscience. Salvy later goes on to challenge Casmir’s masculinity and says, “'Cause [you're] soft. Your insides, they gettin' ripe. [You're] ready to be plucked. Forget that, you are plucked. Like a tomato. It hangs nobly on the tree. Whole and hard, as if it's sayin' don't fuck wit me. It gets soft, it falls off the tree and gets squashed. That's what happenin', my friend. You are getting squashed.” The dialogue is brilliant, authentic, thought-provoking and allows audiences to reflect on their own lives.

Director Richard Gekko has an opportunity to insert his own vision and interpretation of the material. It would be interesting to witness Gekko’s slant on the text. Gekko could also improve the overall pacing of the production. The Head Hunter struggles with timing and could be more intentional. For example, the intermission seems to go on too long and could be shortened. Likewise, when Casmir steps out onto the roof, audiences might start to wonder when Casmir will return. Lastly, Rivera could slow down and take some deep breaths before delivering his lines so his performance has time to sink in with audience members. On the other hand, Clark’s timing as Casmir was on point when he spoke and his performance did not feel rushed and scrambled.

When entering the Abingdon Theatre Complex, a poster for The Head Hunter is not visible. The Dorothy Strelsin Theatre is on the second floor and is not easily accessible via the staircase, but there is an elevator. The theater is intimate and audience members feel like they are sitting in the living room of Casmir’s apartment.

The Head Hunter is recommended for theatergoers who love great writing and appreciate seeing family members from different backgrounds coming together to solve a problem.  Borkowski captures the natural voice of a broken writer and his criminal cousin. Audiences are able to grasp where each character stands as the plot develops. The contrast between the characters is like looking at two sides of a coin. The vision is clear and the aim is accomplished. The writing carries the show and theatergoers will be keen to see any other productions that Borkowski writes.

The Head Hunter runs until Nov. 28 at The Dorothy Strelsin Theatre in the Abingdon Theatre Complex (312 West 36 St., 2nd Fl., between 8th and 9th Aves.) in Manhattan.  Evening performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and matinee performances are Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Advance evening tickets are $35 and matinee tickets are $20. To purchase tickets, call 212-868-4444 or visit SmartTix.com.

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An Interplanetary Love Odyssey

Is Peter Story, the star of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus Live!, an actor or a stand-up comedian? Audience members may be surprised to find that although Story uses his real name, he is in fact performing a scripted one-man play at New World Stages.

Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus Live! tells the story of a man, named Peter Story, whose life was changed when he saw author John Gray speak about his best-selling book by the same name. This life-altering book explains many of the differences between men and women in the hopes of making married couples throughout the world more in-sync with their feelings. Story intimately shares with the audience how the lessons from this book have affected his marriage. With perfectly-timed jokes, hilarious physical comedy and a laugh-out loud funny script—Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus Live! is raucous in its relatability.

Though the stage is set with a couch, end table and stool—none of it is necessary. Story needs no lights, no set and no soaring orchestrations to have everyone in the audience nodding in understanding, clapping in collusion and laughing along with his illuminating realizations about relationships. The two-hour show flies by with a broad range of topics—from vulnerability to trust to things done behind closed doors. As the story is told by a man, the show may focus a little more on the irrational ways women behave (“I have nothing to wear”) but it is all done in an extremely tasteful manner.

However, the author of the book is not to be upstaged by Story. Gray makes a cameo appearance in two video clips shown during the play and these videos are two of the most brilliant moments of the evening.

First, Gray explains how serotonin and dopamine levels differ in men and women and cause different reactions to stress. Gray simplifies a complex scientific explanation with the help of extremely clever animations. 

Second, Gray tackles the “points system” used by women. A bouquet of roses equals one point to signify a nice action by their spouse. A single rose also equals one point. And women also award themselves points throughout the day, making it harder for a Martian to measure up.

The evening isn’t all jokes though. A touching moment comes when Story reflects on the instant he knew he would marry his partner. Gray’s videos are truly informative and educational. And while the audience can laugh at Story for his error in asking his wife, “Do you think maybe it’s that time of the month?,” the true value of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus Live! is in challenging men and women to think about their relationships in a smarter, more attentive way. Relationships will never be perfect but they should always be a priority. 

Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus Live! is running at New World Stages (340 West 50th St. between 8th and 9th Aves.) in Manhattan through Nov. 29. Performances are at 8 p.m on Nov. 12, 14, 19, 21, 23, 25 and 28 and at 7 p.m. on Nov. 15 and Nov. 29. Tickets are $79. To purchase tickets, call 212- 239-6200 or visit Telecharge.com.

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Murder Most Merry

The arrival of Shear Madness in New York comes 36 years after the runaway hit opened in Boston. Since then, other editions have taken up residence in other cities, and inevitably the suspicion arises that the lengthy delay bodes a show that might not meet New York’s high standards. Happily, the lunatic confection at New World Stages indicates the opposite: all those years have helped create an indestructible engine for laughter that should keep its cast bankrolled for quite some time.

Based on a 1963 play by a German avant-garde playwright, Paul Pörtner, who was enamored of commedia dell’arte, Shear Madness is a whodunit that features audience participation, improvisation, and some timeworn jokes. The hoary gags are proof that everything old is new again: burnished and flung out by a terrific cast, they shine as brightly as if they were new-minted. New York hasn’t had such polished low comedy since James Corden starred in One Man, Two Guvnors.

The barbershop of the title, vividly designed by Will Cotton, is run by the campy stylist Tony Whitcomb (Jordan Ahnquist, blessed with wide-eyed innocence), who has a yen for show music and dancing and gossip, which easily distracts him from his job. Whether the charismatic Ahnquist has all the best lines or just makes it seem that way is irrelevant. You can hardly take your eyes off him because his reactions are as much fun as his quips. But the others are close behind.

The tonsorial space is rented from Isabel Czerny, a former concert pianist who lives upstairs and suddenly gave up her career years earlier. Although isolated, she isn’t a recluse. Tony’s female co-worker, the gum-chewing Barbara DeMarco (Kate Middleton), has befriended her, and Tony has been in her apartment too.

The play opens with a dumb show, set to music, that lasts several minutes and requires close observation. Tony is finishing up a customer (Adam Gerber). He spritzes his hair. A bearded man (Jeremy Kushnier) seems to know Barbara well and is perhaps having an affair with her. Barbara drops condoms into a wastebasket. The man with the beard, Eddie Lawrence, cedes his position as the next customer to a strapping guy, Nick O’Brien (Patrick Noonan), who wants a shave. Tony is elated; he hasn’t given a shave in years, and as he settles O’Brien into his chair, he makes small talk.

“Where are you from?” Tony asks.
Nick: “I’m from out of town.”
Tony: “Whereabouts?”
Nick: “Astoria.”

That kind of topicality runs through Shear Madness, along with sight gags and slapstick. The shop is located near Ninth Avenue on 50th Street—the actual address of New World Stages. Each edition is tailored to its city so this version has references, among other things, to the Mets (Gerber has a particularly funny bit about the World Series), the Gowanus Canal, Roosevelt Hospital and Gov. Chris Christie. There are jokes about broader current events as well: Bill Cosby and Brian Williams. There are sight gags and malapropisms—“I got ESPN,” says one character, and the socialite customer Mrs. Shubert (a haughty and suspicious Lynne Wintersteller) refers to “Andrew Dice Webber.”

At one point Mrs. Shubert rebukes Tony with “You were using cursive language,” and he responds, “I was not. They don’t even teach that anymore.” It’s worth noting that those lines aren’t in the script provided, so they are probably ad-libs. The cast is incredibly skilled with making stuff up.

Midway through the first half, it’s discovered that Czerny has been murdered, and the audience is invited to reconstruct the action. Director Bruce Jordan manages the tonal shift to audience participation deftly. As the suspects are questioned, they interact with their interrogators, managing the improvisation adeptly (though many of the questions will be ones they’ve heard before). Moderating the interrogation, Noonan has the trickiest job, and he handles it with authority and humor.

But since this is a murder mystery, it would spoil things to reveal too much more. Suffice it to say that Shear Madness is a hoot.

Shear Madness is at New World Stages (340 West 50th St. between 8th and 9th Aves.) in Manhattan for an open run. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. on Monday; 8 p.m. on Wednesday-Friday; and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets range from $49.50-$79.50. For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit Telecharge.com.

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The Real Change Agent

While some viewed Kathy Change as the flag woman who shouted nonsense and danced for hours on the University of Pennsylvania campus, others saw her as a legendary political activist who sacrificed her life in order to spread her message to the world. 

So who was Kathy Change? Based on a true story, the play Chang(e) captures the last few years of Change’s life and humanizes this historical woman. As an activist in the late '80s and early '90s, Change committed to transforming the world through speech and dance. She believed that our country had a corrupt government that would leave us into an economic fall and war with Iraq, and that the only way to stop those events was the mobilization of a loving and peaceful democracy. Despite Change's revolutionary leadership, her eccentric behavior caused some people to ignore her powerful words. 

Aside from her activism career, Change attempted suicide multiple times and blamed herself for her mother’s death. What kept her alive (and eventually led to her death) was her need for people to acknowledge that a transformation was needed in our world immediately. With a megaphone in her hand or with her body dancing in the breeze, she tried to convince people that this transformation can only begin from within by changing how we think and spreading love to others.

With a combination of theater, dance and movement, Soomi Kim and Suzi Takahashi devised Chang(e) in order to capture the many facets of Change. Within the play, the audience is able to see when Change is coherent and articulates her beliefs with vigor and clarity. These scenes stream seamlessly with Change’s conflicting states where she is high on drugs or stuck in her own head. Since the audience also feels like they're tripping on drugs, it's often difficult to discern imagination with reality in this production. 

The play's black box is transformed with a hippie theme. With a huge peace sign painted on the ground, disco balls hanging from the ceiling and Chinese lanterns lighting up the room, the set designed by Bryce Cutler was without a doubt constructed with the '80s in mind. Along with strips of white cloth as a backdrop, the flowing fabric allows for easy entrances and exits as well as a screen for projection.

The projection and videos by Kevan Loney were incredible in multiple ways. Projected on the backdrop and floor, the projection adds a larger depth to the show by including psychedelic images that bring us into the world of Change’s alternate reality. It literally transports the audience into the mind of Change that was absolutely necessary to the play's story line. During the production, Kim embodies Change by interacting with the projection by dancing and moving around it as if the images have come to life. These projections become part of the set that she uses in order to share Change's story. In addition, it allowed the company to include a video of Brendan McGeever's first-hand account of Change's impact. This retelling helped the audience humanize the misunderstood and radical leader.

Kim was passionate about sharing the story of Change and only naturally played the part of this historical Asian-American. The years of research was evident in her acting. She was confident with every line, every scene and every movement as if she was the woman herself. Kim shows her talent through her ability of changing between the confident Change to the unsteady Change that seemed to almost be on the brink of insanity.

The ensemble consisted of six actors—Ben Skalski, David Perez-Ribada, Kiyoko Kashiwagi, Criena House, Adriana Spencer and Zek Stewart. Their talent was clearly apparent in their unparalleled versatility to play multiple characters. This helped the scenes flow smoothly without any confusion between the characters.

Overall, this show highlights how Kathy Change is an example of a brilliant person who continually fights the demons in the world and in her mind. Chang(e) is for audience members who want to see a non-traditional play that captures the life of a non-traditional woman. 

Soomi Kim and Suzi Takahashi's Chang(e) is playing at HERE (145 Sixth Ave.) in Manhattan through Nov. 22. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. Tickets are $18. For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit www.here.org.

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Kill Me Now

Carolyn (Lizan Mitchell) is a cranky old woman waiting for death. She asks her hospice nurse, Veronika (Nikki E. Walker), to help grant her last dying wish—to be killed before the day is over. As an outspoken and devout Christian, Veronika does not take this request lightly. In search of redemption, this duo reflects on their own identities and past experiences to determine whether suicide is the right decision or whether life should be treated as a gift.

Housed in Harlem's iconic National Black Theatre, Dead and Breathing is a forward-thinking play that challenges us to look at our own lives in order to understand the societal restrictions that exist in our community. It also challenges the audience to ask themselves to what length will it take for someone to change their views. Written by the young and talented GLAAD Media Award winner Chisa Hutchinson, this play captures the ideas that the policing of black bodies goes beyond physical violence and includes the restrictions in our lives that are created by the preconceived perceptions that society creates and upholds. It is these perceptions that shape our own identities and communities.  

Before the audience enters the theater, an exhibit is displayed in the lobby to help the audience understand the mindset of the show. The display poses the question: "How does language create a matrix?" This question is asked in hopes to help understand how the way of life can either liberate or restrict your mind. Once in the theater, the audience sits on lavish red seats that match the ambiance of Carolyn’s home. The set is beautifully displayed with golden frames hanging on the back wall, red carpeting throughout the room, a stain glass window in the bathroom and a large bath tub with golden feet. Even Carolyn’s costume also ties seamlessly with the set, revealing her upscale and rich taste. 

It is clear why Mitchell received the Helen Hayes Award for Best Actress. Her effortless enactment of Carolyn’s crude and blunt characteristics come across extremely well especially when delivering her exceptionally timed dry and sarcastic jokes. She has you continually laughing and sitting on the edge of your seat waiting to hear what she reveals about her past in hopes of convincing Veronika to help her die with dignity. Walker is the leading force that pushes the play forward. With her character constantly questioning and demanding answers, Walker effortlessly maintains the pace of the play and moves the story line towards an unpredictable ending. Together, this duo successfully creates a show that is extremely funny and entertaining.

Under the brilliant direction of Obie winner Jonathan McCrory, the scenic design (Maruti Evans), lighting design (Alan Edwards), costume design (Karen Perry) and sound design (Justin Hicks) effortlessly transports the audience into Carolyn’s extravagant home. Dead and Breathing proves that discussing very serious issues doesn’t have to be done with a serious face. With characters we rarely see on stage, this play gives a breath of fresh air on issues that need to be addressed within a comedy that allows us to humanize and connect with the characters. If for no other reason, people should see this show to experience a spiritual liberation that opens their eyes to the way they view their own lives in order to spark change.

Dead and Breathing runs until Nov. 23 at the National Black Theatre (2031-33 National Black Theatre Way at the corner of 125 St. and Fifth Ave.) in Harlem. Performances are Monday, Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. The shows contain nudity. Tickets are $30. To purchase tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit www.nationalblacktheatre.org.

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Cheers!

The illusory brand of theatrical magic is difficult to find—especially in solo shows. Precious few one-man productions can effectively create that beautiful “baseless fabric” of a transportive play, and even then, their illusions are sometimes imperfect. A single body moves across a deserted stage with not much else but light and music and those elemental players for company. It’s easy to falter when carrying the weight of performance alone, but writer/comedian Terri Girvin, the multi-character star of director Michael Leeds' production of Last Call at the IRT Theater, bolsters an otherwise ordinary tale of a long-serving New York bartender with surprising humor and extraordinary moments of intimacy.

Pools of soft, yellowing light accompany Terri Girvin as she moves through her life story. She begins with a series of easy jokes; "Top 10 Ways to Annoy Your Bartender" is a recurring and sometimes quite delightful theme that runs through her monologues. She then proceeds to insert details of her family’s dysfunctional history in momentary, painful snapshots. These scenes are relayed with grim amusement on Girvin’s part, as it is her mother, a divorced, drink-happy ex-party clown who is the source of this dysfunction. Here, Girvin’s practiced, punch-line-delivering style gives way to the emotional drama of her relationship with her mother. Halfway through the play, the audience becomes unsure of its laughs, and seem more comfortable in silence.

But the scenes themselves are transitory. They seem more like floating motes of experiential anecdotes rather than seamless parts of an organic autobiography. Here is where Girvin’s talent for stand-up comedy interferes slightly with theatrical storytelling. The moments in which Girvin’s mother steps onto the stage in the guise of her own daughter are short; Girvin impersonates her mother uneasily, and is keen to relieve her audience’s tension with a joke. It’s easy for the audience to see that Girvin’s mother is an emotionally dependent, paranoid, unstable and completely unfit parent, but somehow her daughter doesn’t realize that this legacy is in her hands until the end. Consequently, Girvin’s mother, only heard and not seen, is never fully redeemed. For most of the production, she is a two-dimensional weight on her daughter’s shoulders. Girvin, by her own reckoning, deeply desires “freedom from the weight of her [mother’s] trauma.”

Regardless of these dips in storytelling, it is apparent that Girvin is the only person from her family who can stand her mother’s antics. She also seems, by her own telling, to be more involved in her mother’s disorganized life than her largely indifferent brothers. Girvin’s brother is especially blunt: “It’s fun when the circus comes to town, but when the circus never leaves!” A particularly hectic night at the bar sees Girvin taking close to 50 orders every 10 minutes. It is perhaps the aural and visual climax of the entire production. Girvin’s silent co-stars put on terrific performances, as evidenced by the unique collaboration between Grammy-nominated sound designer Phil Palazzolo and lighting designer Jason Fok.

With not a single prop in sight, Girvin clinks imaginary shot glasses onto the bar and pours fizzing drafts of beer into empty steins. She chats genially with the disembodied voices of her customers and slams a nonexistent cash register closed before turning to the audience and grinningly inquiring, “What can I getcha?” Every delectable sound, from the dull roar of conversation to the sloshing of a drink, matches in near-perfect synchronicity with Girvin’s expert movements. Every voice has its own extraordinarily ordinary life; Palazzolo and Fok have squeezed alchemical gold from the listless air with their superb intertwining of light and sound.

But the harmony of Girvin’s movements, in perfect beat and cadence to the swing of her bar, quickly devolves into chaos when she receives a call from her mother. Without revealing Girvin’s mother’s shocking escapade, and the proverbial last straw for Girvin herself, the harried and exhausted bartender ends up kicking everyone out of her bar. She listens shamefacedly to her customer’s insults and drunken raging (who only minutes before had flirted, smiled or laughed with her). She then slams her phone onto the bar, looking out teary-eyed and tired at her arrested audience as we wonder: Was that their last call?

It is this explosive scene that discloses the fundamental problem Girvin has with marrying the architecture of her life to that of her mother. We are never sure if she takes up the Sisyphean task of maintaining any semblance of a relationship with her mother after this. But this unmarried, diminutive, middle-aged working woman is still a hopeful, optimistic child at heart. Her ever-cheerful retort to the dull greeting, “How are you?” is a loud, “Living the dream!” The final scene is nostalgically beautiful, and we stitch up her disparate stories of love, loss and emotional pain into a safe blanket we wish we could cover her in. And in perhaps the most moving, and most fitting, end to this darkly humorous tale of a life not yet fully lived, Girvin leaves us with no ending. We only have her memories.

Last Call ran from Oct. 9-Nov. 1 at the IRT Theater (154 Christopher St., #3B) in Manhattan. For more information, visit www.terranovacollective.org.

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Eternity Knocking

Holiday gatherings have provided the setting for many American dramas, from William Inge’s classic Picnic (Labor Day) to Anna Ziegler’s A Delicate Ship earlier this season, set on Christmas Eve. Ironically, Christmas was also the holiday observed by the Jewish families in Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo and Richard Greenberg’s The Assembled Parties. Now, in Stephen Karam’s richly textured new play, The Humans, Thanksgiving gets its due. First, though, this reviewer must declare that Stephen is no relation, although our paths have crossed and he is a charming fellow. [It will also be less awkward for me if I refer to him by his first name from here on.]

The Humans is set in a basement apartment in Chinatown, marvelously realized by David Zinn with sterile white walls and a spiral staircase that joins two floors, both visible. The upper seems to be below the street level, while the lower is a windowless sub-basement. Brigid (Sarah Steele), the female half of the couple occupying it, boasts to her skeptical parents of its uniqueness. When her mother, Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), observes that outside the barred upstairs window is “an alley full of cigarette butts,” Brigid defends it as “an interior courtyard.”

It’s not just the details of real estate in New York that Stephen gets right. The Blake clan that has assembled includes father Erik (Reed Birney) and his mother, “Momo” (Lauren Klein), who is in the advanced stages of dementia. From her bottle of Ensure to her unintelligible mutterings to her blossoming at the sound of singing, Stephen has captured the reality of someone in the throes of age and dementia, and the strain on a loving family.

Brigid and her boyfriend, Rich (Arian Moayed), have moved in together to the mild disdain of Deirdre—and it’s one of the charms of Stephen’s play that most of the disapproval of others’ actions voiced by the characters is muted in a way that indicates a fundamental respect for one another.

There are, however, hints of deep troubles in the family, from finances to health. Erik is cutting his own hair, and some comments lead one to believe that he a miserly streak. Brigid’s lesbian sister Aimee (Cassie Beck) has recently broken up with her girlfriend and has been facing serious health problems. She has also been laid off. There are other financial troubles that surface during the day, and only Moayed’s level-headed, easygoing Rich seems unperturbed—but then, he’s due to inherit a trust fund.

The disagreements and problems that arise are deceptively quotidian. The devout Deirdre brings a statue of the Virgin Mary as a gift—“she’s appearing everywhere now, not just in Fatima.” And she hints gently but repeatedly that Brigid and Rich should get married. Deirdre is also aghast at the condition of the apartment: loud thumping that comes from the apartment above and lights (handled by Justin Townsend) that seem to have a mind of their own, flickering on and off, so that an emergency LED light in Deirdre’s care package has to be sought out. Occasionally, too, a trash compactor rumbles nearby in the building’s depths (sound is by Fitz Patton).

Director Joe Mantello utilizes the two levels of the stage well, often with action happening simultaneously (though at one point, when all the characters are gathered on the lower level, a loud thud from the apartment above probably would not be heard).

The excellent performances are all detailed nicely. Mention is made of mom’s knee problems, and Houdyshell gingerly steps down the stairs, planting both feet on one step before lifting a foot to step down on another. Reed Birney invests Erik, who is carrying a burdensome secret, with weariness and anxiety. Cassie Beck’s Aimee is emotionally adrift and yet phlegmatic about her mother’s e-mails communicating gossip about friends getting ovarian cancer and lesbians killing themselves. And Steele’s Brigid is just enough of a pill to earn her a few demerits, but not enough to cause antipathy.

As good as the portrayal of the family is, Stephen has a last-minute twist that sets his bland title in stark relief and yet has been cleverly, carefully prepared. The Roundabout has commissioned all his plays, and although The Humans is only his third, its stagecraft makes one eager to see what’s next.

Stephen Karam’s The Humans is playing at the Laura Pels Theater (11 West 46th St. between 6th and 7th Avenue) in Manhattan through Jan. 3. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday-Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. The production has been announced for a Broadway transfer early in 2016. For tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit RoundaboutTheatre.org

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Fairy Tale Fantasia

Over the decades, the story of Cinderella has gone through many variant permutations: from the original publication of Charles Perrault's classic story in 1697; to Ever After, the film adaptation which was made some 300 years later and starred Drew Barrymore; Disney's animated version in 1950; and most recently, the studio's live-action remake this past year. Another version has found its way in downtown Manhattan at the Minetta Lane Theatre; it's given a certain burlesque twist as only Austin McCormick and his Bacchanalian band of misfits at Company XIV can provide. Following the success of their now-perennial holiday hit, Nutcracker Rouge (which first played at the Minetta Lane back in 2013 and will return again this November), as well as their seductive romp on unrequited romance, Rococo Rouge (which, in turn, premiered last year at a smaller venue in the East Village), XIV has quickly gained a strong following—and equally formidable presence in the downtown theater scene.  

With their growing reputation, along with their flair for the fantastical, one can only wonder what they can do with a story like Cinderella. What they end up doing is what they've always done and done well: serve up that blend of opera, circus, vaudeville, cabaret and dance that has become unique to the XIV style. There are gender-bending performers onstage, dancing along to a hip, genre-bending soundtrack. There are thrilling dances, choreographed by McCormick himself, steeped in their now-signature baroque style. There are titillating costumes, set against equally fetishistic lighting and sets, each designed brilliantly by Zane Pihlstrom and Jeanette Yew, respectively. And while XIV certainly has developed their own stamp, stylistically—they are also not the kind to rest on their heavily-gilded laurels. 

Here, they amp up other elements which have entertained audiences in the past—both their own, and the ones in King Louis XIV's own courts: that of comedy and farce. While we've seen shades of comedy in previous XIV productions (most notably in Jeff Takacs' and Shelly Watson's performances in both Nutcracker and Rococo), we've never seen it thrown under the spotlight in quite this way before. This is mainly due to company regular Brett Umlauf (last seen in Rococo) and XIV newcomer Marcy Richardson as the evil stepsisters, who—in lieu of an off-key "Sing, Sweet Nightingale" flute-off—participate in very, very high-pitched operatic duels and hilarious attempts at playing "Fur Elise" with glasses of water in-between acts. Also adding to the comedic mix is the always fabulous Davon Rainey as the Stepmother, whose vacillation between his double-act as the bizarro, 18th-century version of a "mom-ager" to the two sisters (Kris Jenner, eat your heart out), and a Mom-zilla to Cinderella is at once frightening and awe-inspiring—in the best way ever.  

Grounding the comedy with XIV's unmistakable brand of seduction are the equally-captivating performances of company regulars Katrina Cunningham, Steven Trumon Gray and Allison Ulrich as The Fairy, The Prince and our heroine Ella, respectively. Eternally ethereal in both presence and voice, Cunningham is perfectly cast as The Fairy, lending an interesting sensuality to the role not often seen in other adaptations of the tale. Her entrance alone is a heart-stopping sight to behold, not unlike the one induced by the flamenco dance sequence in 2013's Nutcracker. Gray's own entrance is one more in keeping with Cinderella's comical tone, providing a great contrast to his masculine aerial performance. However, it is Ulrich as the titular Ella who not only shows emotional depth with a simple gesture, but also incredible physical prowess despite her charmingly diminutive frame (see: above left picture).

Once again, Company XIV proves their staying power, spreading their signature grown-up magic onto a childhood favorite. Their spin on Cinderella is rife with sumptuous desire at every turn: where the Fairy Godmother is no longer a bumbling elderly lady, but a beautiful young woman bedecked in gold; where the mice turn into the hottest footmen around and the courtiers partake in dances that veer more toward frequenters of the S&M underworld than the ballrooms of Versailles. However, in true XIV style, it never crosses the line over into vulgarity—but rather, revels in flirting with that very line. Perrault may have won our hearts over with his tale back in the day, but if this critic had her way, this Cinderella would dominate the fairy-tale canon. After all, what's a happy ending without a little bit of danger along the way?

Cinderella runs until Nov.15 at the Minetta Lane Theatre (18 Minetta Lane between MacDougal and 6th Ave.) in Manhattan. Performances are Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. The shows contain partial nudity: 16 and over are admitted. Tickets for Cinderella range from $40 to $65 with premium and VIP seating from $75 to $105. For more information about this and other Company XIV productions, please visit http://CompanyXIV.com.

 

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Down in the Depths

Solo shows tend to be showcases for talented actors, but the shows themselves may be variable. Sometimes they are mere vehicles for a talented star; sometimes they are more than vehicles. And once in a while, as in Empanada Loca, with Rent alumna Daphne Rubin-Vega, the star provides jet fuel for the vehicle. Playing a woman named Dolores in Aaron Mark’s precisely calibrated, terrific script, Rubin-Vega demonstrates that she is, even without singing, an astonishing talent.

As the show opens, Dolores spots the audience and wonders how we managed to find her. She’s in a deep disused subway tunnel in the New York system. She’s hiding out, and around her, in Bradley King’s astonishingly dim but effective lighting, one can barely make out a grate on the upstage wall and a large massage table. She is not used to visitors, although she says, “They still come down, sometimes they come, when they're expanding. They like this tunnel ’cause I got electricity—I set these lights up myself—and I got privacy, ’cause this is as far down as you can go. This is one of those tunnels the city gave up on before they even laid the tracks.”

No longer apprehensive, soon she is unspooling her life story, and Rubin-Vega brings warmth and passion to a tale that involves hard knocks and gruesome twists. “I’m only down here ’cause I'm not goin’ back to prison,” she says. “Thirteen years, they locked my ass up.”

She started out an ordinary college kid, a student at Hunter. “I was gonna be a urban planner,” she recalls. But her Aussie roommate wanted weed one day, and Dolores went along and met Dominic, a drug dealer. At the same time, her mother died and her father, a doorman, went to pieces and couldn’t take care of her. So she moved in with Dominic, whom she protected from prison after the police picked her up. After coming out, she went looking for Dominic and the money they’d stashed, and both were gone. The old neighborhood had one or two familiar faces, but nobody knew where Dominic was. But she spots a favorite haunt, Empanada Loca, which makes the small pies that are central to Latin cuisine. Inside is Luis, son of the proprietor she once knew; she knew Luis, too, but he was a child and is now a young man. He gives Dolores his late father’s room and even helps her drum up business by putting a sign in his window for her massage business. It’s a skill she learned in prison from her lesbian protectress, Tabitha.

Mark, who also directs lovingly, provides ample humor. Describing Dominic, Dolores remarks that she noticed he had “fingers like sausages” and bawdily suggests what one might extrapolate from that. The script is vivid, evocative and specific. There are mentions of a “purple hat,” a “red glass bong,” and at a Planet Fitness gym in the neighborhood, “these white chicks in polo shirts working there, they’re making green smoothies or some shit.” Dolores momentarily forgets what her father choked to death on, then remembers: “shish kabob.”

Eventually complications arise between Dolores and Luis, and the story grows darker. There’s a tip-off in the program about the inspiration for Mark’s show, but it’s better if you haven’t read it. There’ll come a point when the savvy theatergoer will suddenly cotton to the source—it’s been used in a famous musical—but Mark has gone back to original publications of the story and made enough alterations in place and character that it takes a major plot point to turn the audience member in the right direction. Suffice it to say, it’s a dark place that Dolores and Luis end up in.

Clad only in a black hoodie and black slacks, Rubin-Vega is a terrific guide to this hellish underworld, colored simply and darkly by David Meyer in shades of charcoal. When the story turns cringe-worthy, she is still a commanding presence. It’s not just a good performance; it feels like a landmark for a consummately gifted actress.

The solo show Empanada Loca plays through Nov. 8 at the Labyrinth Theater Company (155 Bank St. between Washington St. and the West Side Highway) in Manhattan. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. on Oct. 25 and 26, and Nov. 1, 3 and 8. They are at 8 p.m. on Oct. 28–31 and Nov. 4–7. For tickets, visit labtheater.org.

 

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