Spanish Absurdism at its Best and Worst

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Reviewed by Kenneth Laboy

The entirely-in-Spanish production of Ramiro Sandoval’s En el Ojo de la Aguja begins with a sense of unease as discordant notes punctuate the darkness where masked figures roam. They carry pieces of wooden wreckage that they use as furniture. They build things and unmake them only for someone else to take the pieces and build again. It is then that one realizes: the play has been woven with the absurd – characters who grapple with an incomprehensible world, the constant inability to effectively communicate, repetitive behavior that leads to the same results.

The playwright is clearly grappling with ideas of otherness, conflict and alienation within an existential framework. All of which are accentuated by the slow rising of a physical wall between the audience and the players on stage. Nothing they say or do will stop that wall from rising and so every action on stage is meaningless.

In this play the absurd is used as a tool to alienate. The characters highly stylized jokers who are in on the ruse. They speak to each other of staying on script, they constantly ask each other if they are bored, they quip that fun only exists in alienation. The audience is being entertained by senseless, though not depthless, dialogue. And the characters while away the time until their script ends.

These ideas are all exciting to engage with, and it is a production that creates many sorts of important conversations. In theory this should be enough, but as a performance piece it lacks stakes; worse yet, it is not engaging. And the text is self-aware enough to know this about itself. When the characters break the fourth wall and see the many eyes, they comment on those eyes being disengaged. When the characters ask each other if they are bored, it is hard not to sympathize if they are. And, while thematically engaging, the rising wall is only a too constant reminder of how much of the performance is left.

The play is smart and dense, with a sophisticated knowledge of both theater and language. The actors do well by the stylized demands of the production and the director skillfully uses the space to highlight the thematic through-line of the piece. But art can be successful without being satisfying.

En el Ojo de la Aguja plays now through Sunday, September 22nd at The Tank (312 West 36th Street, NYC)

Tickets can be bought at http://www.theTankNYC.org for $30

Chaos Theory: a Little Chaotic but Delivers in the End

 

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featured: Jennifer Joy Pawlitschek

Reviewed by Anthony Arcidi

As part of The Theater for the New City’s Dream Up Festival, The Chaos Theory of Now, written and performed by Jennifer Joy Pawlitschek, relates how in life, as well in the world of quantum physics, that small forces and actions can have large consequences later in time. Though done with no major costume changes nor cosmic photography, with just three table and chair setups and simple lighting changes, Pawlitschek manages to convey an understanding of the chaos of matter by presenting varying possible outcomes of her personality.

Proudly espousing her present status as a Catholic lesbian nerd with Midwestern Minnesotan roots, Pawlitschek explores how she might have turned out had not key actualizing events within her own conscience or with formative figures in her life happened differently. The outcomes can be comic like how the Trumpist farm wife is always talking about Armageddon or the coming apocalypse, or tragic like the devastated widow possibly in denial that her husband’s death may have been her fault in an accidental overdose or possible suicide.  The major revelation for me compares how two objects can float away from each other until they are poles apart as a metaphor for her separation from her family and the loneliness that accompanies it in order to be true to herself.

The performance includes audio effects and queues that match her actions at varying points, and theme matching music, ranging from new age for the open and close to rock for the hilarious teen activist. While the science speak is performed in intimate lecture fashion, the dramatized conversations are one sided dialogue to an unseen speaker. The disadvantage of a one person show with no costume changes is the differing characters can become a hazy blend where you have to orient,  whether this character is a takeoff of a previous character or different. The dialogue pacing can take on a hypnotic rhythm and I found myself drifting a couple times at the two-thirds to three-quarter mark.

But the strings of logic are neatly tied up by the conclusion of the show and the audience walks out of the theater with an alternate perspective of how we all got to where we all are in the first place.

The Chaos Theory of Now plays from September 8th through September 15, 2019 at Theater For the New City 155 1st ave NY NY https://theaterforthenewcity.net

 

It’s Not Rock ‘n Roll High School, but Contact High Demonstrates Future Promise

 

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shown above: Kyle Reid Hass

 

Reviewed by Anthony Arcidi

The musical production team of Kyle Reid Hass and Jeremy Swanton may be nascent in the annals of musical theater, but their capabilities as playwrights and composers show promise despite the weaknesses of their first Off-Broadway production of Contact High: A New Musical at Theater 511 on West 54th Street.  While the accomplishment of the pair is notable, the messages of drug addiction and school bullying never seem resolved or fully addressed with the seriousness the issues it deserves, due to numerous plot lines and elements making the characters less believable as typical high school students. The play’s intended audience is young adults and the composers most likely want them to identify with the characters.

The story opens with high school paramours Jean Simon, confidently played by Gabriella Marzetta, and Benjamin Crane, played by Swanton, conducting a heroin distribution ring to raise money for Benjamin’s expected tuition if he is accepted into Princeton. While a transaction of $20,000 is made to sound commonplace, the pair seem more at home in a street gangland environment than your typical classroom. These are not timid teenagers. Jean is a heroin addict in crisis who’s father is the gangland boss. Meanwhile the science club has decided to kick out Haley Walter Keys, played by Hass, a gentle giant boy in a tee-shirt and sweats who suffers from a mental disorder where he can become psychotic/psychopathic if he is touched without his permission. This is most likely because he is just not fitting in, despite his intellectual brilliance and the upcoming state science competition. The choice of a disability with violent repercussions could be problematic for any disabled viewer to feel comfortable with, since it supports an inherent bias against disabled people, stigmatizing them as dangerous landmines to be negotiated with rather than just being treated as normal folks with some physical or mental limitations. To top it off, there is intrigue about what happened to Tommy Wheeler, another student, who has disappeared and his whereabouts are unknown.

The friendship between Jean and Haley develops by breaking open a safe, in an implausible MacGyver-like fashion, to avenge Jean’s fouled drug transaction and raise money for Haley’s debt to a toughie, a developing mutual feeling of being outcasts and empathizing with Haley’s condition.  The progression from Jean’s addiction to rehabilitation seems elusive and glossed over rather than addressed in any substantial way. Their triumph over being able to touch seems goofy and melodramatic, especially when Haley’s explanation of his disorder specified him being touched without his permission.

The 19 musical numbers are mostly a lighter catchy pop-rock style of performance with the basic choreography that the small stage can allow, along with the sad ballads for Jean’s heroin fixing scenes. The sense of angst ridden teenagers who question their future role in the world is conveyed, ranging from boldly singing “I am the future”, to “who will I be”, to, oddly, “there is no history”, and “maintaining the status quo.” The normal teenage attitude of distrust in authority comes through in the caricatured representation of the school staff and psychotherapist grief counselor, who is hiding a secret. The acted dialogue is dense in verbage, and many times is delivered in staccato fashion, sometimes rushing through the potential emotional impact of the lines. The pace of the plot development is not slow by any standards, but the number of plot strings muddles the focus on bullying and addiction recovery, especially when the ruthless mob boss, Landon Casey, an exaggerated caricature played by E.B. Hinnant takes the stage.  

The set has the feel of a youth rec room with posters of the missing student Tommy Wheeler plastered everywhere along with newspaper pages surrounding the 25 foot square stage with six rolling chairs for staging. The music ensemble is visible at stage rear and left. Andrew Garvis’ competent stage lighting design changes from scene to scene and goes dark as cast members rearrange the characters’ movements. There is only one door for a stage entrance, and to make the most use of the small theater, the actors perform in the aisle several times for added spatial dimension.

Hass and Swanton, a noted recent graduate of the NYU Performance Studies Department, together developed Contact High from Hass’s high school screenplay titled The Science Fair. It turned into a workshop production at Theater Row’s Studio Theater as The Science Fair:  A Game-Changing New Musical in 2017. This team has been spotlighted for their talent and I expect they will mature with each new production, which I look forward to seeing in the future. 

Contact High runs August 15 through September 7, 2019 at Theater 511, West 54th street in Manhattan. http://www.contacthighmusical.com

Sadly, I waited unTILL an Emotional Connection Happened but it Never did

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Danielle Marie Gray & Taylor A. Blackman

Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan

Have you ever wanted to be able to join in with others who were feeling something grand but you just couldn’t bring yourself to get wrapped up in the excitement? Then you know how I felt watching Till, as part of the New York Musical Festival. The production has all the elements required to be a great production: great singing and solid acting, but something did not add up here, and I was unable to emotionally connect with the piece.

Till, brought to us by Leo Schwartz and DC Cathro, tells us the infamous horrific story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy killed in Mississippi during the Jim Crow period. Emmett is depicted as a charismatic young man who was killed by a white man because he whistled at his wife. This tragedy spread like wildfire and made history. It even caused the Emmett Till Civil Rights Bill to be signed into law by President Obama.

There are a few things that hurt the play’s appeal. The representations of the white racists were played by black actors wearing masks and the first time we encounter them in the play, they are caricatures. Tyla Collier laughs like a hyena, which at first is comical but goes on way too long and becomes distracting. This initial buffoonish portrayal makes it hard to see her as a murderous wife later in the piece.

Also, every time the momentum of the play began to pick up speed, a song interrupted the flow of the piece. I wish the actors sang with the same emotional intensity as they did when they were engaged in dialogue. I would start to connect with the story but the music, although gorgeously sung, took me out of the moment and killed any dramatic affectations that were intended.

The 90-minute musical spends too long getting to the main event, so when the climax happens, the audience has already checked out because we’ve long known what was coming. There is a big production number, meant to be an evangelical event at Emmett’s funeral. I understand this is a cultural phenomenon with deep roots in the black community, but it is so joyously sung and danced that it detracts from the severity of what Jim Crow and bigotry justified as acceptable behavior in the south. Again, the musicality undercut the profundity of the piece, which hurt its overall impact. The energy of the last number seemed at odds with the sadness of the situation. This disparity confused me about how I was supposed to feel. 

Despite the music’s negative impact, it is sung by stellar vocalists. Judith Franklin brings down the house with her powerhouse ability. Taylor Blackman is wonderful as Emmett Till. He is infectious and steals your heart, making his untimely death more tragic. Dwelvan David is enigmatic as the preacher. His voice hits a sweet spot in your soul. These singers’ voices cut through you and are a delight to listen to.

The audience gave them a standing ovation and if I was complimenting their singing alone, I would have joined in. Sadly, as a cohesive piece of theater, this musical just did not work for me.

Till closed on July 29, 2019 at 480 W 42nd St. http://www.nymf.org

‘Overture the Musical’ Delights and Inspires

Krista Eyler is Lilly Brooks in Overture the Musical - photo by Steven Rosen

Krista Eyler in Overture the Musical. Photo by Steven Rosen

Reviewed by Audrey Weinbrecht

Overture the Musical is the official Grand Jury selection of the 2019 New York Musical Festival. It premiered in July 2018 at the Kansas City Fringe Festival where it was one of the highest attended productions. It had its first full production at Kansas City’s The Arts Asylum in September 2018.

Overture is based on the true story of a local community banding together to save the Kansas City Philharmonic in 1953. Against this backdrop is the love story between Christopher, an assistant conductor frustrated by his stagnant career, and Lily, an enthusiastic sales rep for the Philharmonic. As the staff members of the Philharmonic struggle to make ends meet, Lily and Christopher grow closer. Yet their relationship is hampered by Lily’s heartbreaking secret. Can the Philharmonic and Lily and Christopher’s love survive?

This show is a love letter to music and the people who devote their lives to creating and supporting art in their communities. It’s also about letting go of the past to pursue a brighter future. Heartwarming with dashes of humor which prevent it from becoming saccharine, this is the perfect show for music and musical lovers.

The score is a light blend of traditional musical theater with touches of pop and samples of the classical music pieces that inspire the characters. I imagine it would be even better with a full orchestra. The book is tightly scripted with lighthearted fun and poignancy.

The cast, most of whom were part of the original Kansas City production, is excellent. Krista Eyler, the lyricist, composer and co-book writer also stars as Lily. Eyler is charming and soulful in her role, providing the emotional anchor for the show. Kay Noonan as Lily’s supervisor Inda Mae Beasley provides most of the comic relief with a playful wit.

This is a fun night at the theater, sure to leave audiences with a smile on their faces (and maybe a few tears).

Overture runs through July 28th at the Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street. Tickets can be purchased at www.nymf.org

‘At Black Lake’ Fails to Deliver Emotional Payoff

At Black Lake featuring Heather Benton and Chris J. Cancel-Pomales, April Sweeney and Darrell Stokes, background Photo credit Walls Trimble

Heather Benton and Chris J. Cancel-Pomales with April Sweeney and Darrell Stokes in the background.

Reviewed by Audrey Weinbrecht

Four years after their children are lost in a terrible tragedy, married couple Else and Johnny return to Black Lake, the home of Cleo and Eddie and the scene of the disaster. Over the next several days, the couples grapple with their fraught connection with each other and the fact that they may not have truly known their children.

There is rich emotional material to be mined here but the story fails to come together in a cohesive arc that would allow for depth and clarity. Most of the play is spent elucidating what happened in the past but doesn’t give the characters any resolution in the present. The language has a poetic sensibility with lines often repeated for emotional emphasis. There are several haunting monologues but the highly stylized language seems to get in the actors’ way during the emotional confrontations. It’s unclear how much of this is down to the translation or to the original playwright’s style.

The staging is very sparse. The floor is covered with plastic paper and in the second half of the show, this is used to great effect. About midway through the play the actors return to the stage soaked to the skin and barefoot, referencing one of the biggest emotional revelations in the story. Thereafter, when one character crosses the stage to confront another (which happens frequently) they slip and slide on the wet plastic. It was a really creative way of conveying the messiness of the emotional dynamics.

There were other production choices that were odd such as the decision to have Else’s monologue about the children’s deaths sung. Heather Benton brings wonderful raw emotion to that speech but the choice to have it and nothing else in the show sung took me out of the moment. Every scene ends in a ten-second blackout which makes the pacing very choppy.

The cast is excellent, especially Chris J. Cancel-Pomales as Eddie, whose carefree and charismatic personality masks a desperate anxiety. Unfortunately, the script does not allow the actors to bring their characters’ arcs to their true potential. The fascinating premise and talent of the actors makes for several wonderful moments but without a tighter script they remain just a series of moments strung together to no resolution.

At Black Lake is the American premiere of a German play originally written by Dea Loher, presented by Necessary Digression. It runs through July 25th with performances at 3 PM on weekends and 7 PM on week days, at The Tank (312 West 36th Street).

www.thetanknyc.org

Let’s Talk About the Good Things

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Reviewed by Kenneth Laboy   

From the moment Not Even the Good Things starts one can appreciate the level of craft behind this production.

The lighting design of Alexander Le Vaillant Freer successfully sets the atmosphere from the start as the audience follows a single candle, and deftly carries the viewer through the many changes in mood that the play calls for. It is through Freer’s work that the production displays the elements of horror since the play itself downplays these in favor of creating a disconnect between the audience and the players. The irony effectively creates the sense of danger that wouldn’t exist if these elements were in conjunction. 

And then, the actors enter the stage. The ensemble has no weak points. As actors they are always present, always saying something even when silent. The most complicated characters, the ones with the most decisive arcs are the first we meet Grace and Bill, played by Victoria Janicki and Sea McHale respectively. The other characters serve as foils to them. Coming into the stage to challenge them in different ways. And these two actors take the material given with assured confidence. Their performances anchor the show. 

Those performances exist because writer Joseph Scott Ford has crafted an exciting blend of humor and pathos that lets these actors be electrifying on stage. He transitions through the emotional beats impeccably. And his dialogue is delightfully heavy with the unsaid, with the implied. Ford is at his best when focusing on these relationships and the specificity they carry. His instinct for what is most emotionally resonant never fails. That being said- 

As a narrative, it lacks forward momentum. While the interactions are interesting, dynamic and well-crafted, the stakes aren’t raised as the play progresses. This takes away from the moment of catharsis at the end, because it was reached without a climax. Adding to this is the fact that the last beat of Bill’s arc arrives through a conversation between Jackie and him- a relationship that had been given little weight prior to this. The play’s haunting is mostly left at the periphery of the action and so Bill’s grief, though it bookends the play, and is the foundation of the thematic through-line, is never explored enough to justify it’s being the center of the narrative.  

This problem is heightened by the challenges of the theater space. The set and the audience exist in very close proximity to each other making it difficult to follow anything that was staged too far downstage or on the floor. Because the set is small and there is no less than five actors on stage at times, director Kelsey Claire needed to use these areas to create a variety of stage pictures. For example, because the play heightens the mundane and the specter of “The girl” was placed on the floor for most of it, one forgot about her haunting for lengthy periods of time. Because that haunting seems to be a personification of Bill’s grief, and everything else happening on stage was so interesting, it was easy to dismiss his grief as well. 

The final product has its flaws, but it is also immensely enjoyable. The choices made by this team of artists are incredibly strong from start to finish. One must thank Ford, for what was clearly a labor of love, and Claire for leading an impressive team of artists to create a thoroughly entertaining, at times rambunctious, piece of art, one that keeps you thinking once the lights go down.  

Not Even the Good Things plays now through Saturday, July 27th in the Studio Theatre at Theatre Row 410 W 42st

Tickets can be bought for $35 at

https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/Not-Even-the-Good-Things/Overview?AID=AFF000009900&cm_mmc=Playbill-_-affiliate-_-web-_-AFF00000990