You Wouldn’t Expect is Good but Misses the Bigger Picture

22 Sep

Reviewed by Nicholad Linnehan

There was a time when seeing a piece of theater that’s great and historically accurate would have made me impressed and that would be enough for me to write a completely praiseworthy review. You Wouldn’t Expect, produced by the American Bard Theater, is all of these things. The cast is talented and it should be that simple, but it’s not the case for me anymore. I am an Actor with a Disability who struggles to find work in this industry, as many of us do who have disabilities. Thus, when you see a role written for a disabled character,you get excited as that should provide an opportunity for an Actor with a Disability to work. But when this role is played by an able bodied actor (which happens all too often), as it is in this show, you become angry, even though that actor in that role is clearly talented. There are few roles out there for us as it is, so when one comes along we NEED that opportunity. So while I love the script and the actors in the show, the production fails to be all that it could be. I would be failing in my integrity, if I didn’t make this crucial point. This company is just one of the many ones out there that makes choices like this because they are not aware that by doing this, they are helping perpetuate the myth that it is okay to cast able-bodied actors in disabled roles. It is not okay. I am by no means trying to trash or demean this company, but trying to make others aware of the larger issue.

During 1933 to 1973, North Carolina had a eugenics policy, that allowed them to sterilize the disabled to prevent them from spreading their “ defective” genes to future generations. The highest attrition rate was impoverished African Americans. We meet Mary Tom Walker, a white woman, who is in charge of a sterilization sight. Her new assistant, Temperance is African American. During the 1960’s in the south, African Americans were treated ,horribly. For most of the play we witness the degradation and humiliation that Temperance faces at the hand of Mary Tom. Temperance is basically treated like a slave, and is expected to do anything Mary Tom asks. We side with Temperance with her plight. I won’t give away the climax, but it is very satisfying and cathartic.

Erin Gilbreth plays Mary Todd perfectly. She looks and behaves like a sweet southern woman on the outside, but underneath this veneer lies a mean racist who will destroy anyone who stands in her way. Gilbreth plays this duality brilliantly and we love to hate her. Okema T. Moore plays Temperance extremely well. We witness her inner battle between asserting herself, while trying to cope with the prejudice she faces. Her frustration boils, as does ours, and when she reaches the crucible we jump out of our seats as her justified anger explodes. Ross Hewitt plays Richard Banor, a disgusting human being both on the outside and inside, firmly. His brutality and nasty demeanor are as every bit believable as any great actor out there.

So, while I’m an advocate for change and will continue raising awareness about using disabled actors, I also applaud talent when I see it. On one hand this production educates us on eugenics, a notable horrific part of our history, yet they miss the chance to profoundly reach us through the casting choices they made. This cast definitely has great skill and commands the stage! Hopefully one day we’ll be able to say “you wouldn’t expect a disabled character to be played by an able-bodied person”. This discussion runs deep and its one we definitely need to have in the entertainment industry. If we don’t start the conversation, how will change happen?

You wouldn’t Expect plays now through October 7, 2018 at the Chain Theater, 312 W 36th St. 4th floor https://www.americanbard.org/

The Hoaxocaust Gives us Plenty to Think About

8 Sep

 

By Gregor Collins

In Hoaxocaust—the award-winning one-man show that frolics as it gaslights everything we think we know about the Holocaust—its writer/performer Barry Levey, in a format comparable to a Ted Talk or an episode of Who is America, leaves his nagging mother and sassy Dominican boyfriend behind to interview different Holocaust deniers throughout the world to get to the bottom of their theories and expose the dangers of what we all know as “fake news.”

But is it actually fake news? Levey wants us to believe it’s not, and though we know in our hearts the Holocaust happened, at every turn we’re convincingly tempted to keep our ears glued to every exchange.

Presenting the three main tenets of Holocaust deniers—contesting the number of Jews killed, denying Hitler’s intent to systematically kill Jews, and disputing the existence of gas chambers—Levey gets to the bottom of the debate by interviewing three real-life deniers that Levey plays himself: Arthur Butz, David Irving, and Robert Faurisson.

Every sentence out of Butz, Irving and Faurisson is based on actual quotes they’ve been spewing in the public arena for decades, and that Levey manipulates us into never being entirely sure that what we’ve always believed true is actually true, is a testament to his provocative script. Testing our belief systems to such an unsettling and at times farcical degree, the only thing left for us to do by the end is reassure ourselves that the playwright is merely peeing on our legs and telling us it’s raining. Of course the Holocaust happened. Saying otherwise would be certifiably ludicrous on so many levels. Right?

Right??

Be careful. Watching a play about a hoax might just be a hoax within a hoax.

I’ll leave you with this statement from Director of Arts and Culture at the 14th Street Y, Ronit Muszkatblit: “As the daughter of a holocaust survivor born in Germany, raised in Israel and now living here in NYC, my life and identity have been inseparable from this defining moment in history. Nothing is simple, nothing is one dimensional and the lasting markers of the past need to be examined and redefined constantly to become part of our story.”

 

The show runs from September 5 to September 30 at the Theater at the 14th Street Y. Tickets: https://www.14streety.org/nowplaying/

Red Emma and the Mad Monk is Pure Madness

29 Aug

Reviewed by Jara Jones

    It’s a sign of our uneasy and determined times that the themes expressed in Red Emma and the Mad Monk feel dated, even though the experimental full length one act musical was first performed in 2017.  By now, any audience member has been inundated with the idea that the myth and subterfuge language can create (especially language expressed via social media and Wikipedia) depreciates humanity. It lionizes others while allowing corruption to take hold within our government.  We’ve been told time and again, offered multitudes of evidence of greed and subversion by foreign countries, and there’s still people who either refuse to believe it or focus squarely on the locus of their self-interest.

    The premise: A twelve-year old girl, Addison (Maybe Burke, a non-binary actor doing the best they can with the halting, limp text) has a link to two legendary people.  The enigmatic mystic Grigori Rasputin (Drita Kabashi, an indomitable presence with the ability to make simple, heartfelt choices) and the anarchist activist Emma Goldman (Imani Pearl Williams, playing the role with unbridled, wide-eyed enthusiasm).  During the production, their lives are highlighted in counterpoint to Addison’s own desires to stoke political change. The two figures serve as a sort of devil and angel counterbalance for the young girl; in the play’s conclusion, however, all hope is dashed through further obfuscation of history and truth.  

    The show is a cluster of half-premises and dissonant styles, hammered again and again to fill the hour and forty-minute running time.     There’s camp abound with the casting of a woman as Rasputin, endowing her full of pop culture references instead of authentic living. Emma Goldman comes off as an optimistic starry-eyed, one-dimensional character; we end up learning so much more about the men in her life (such as Sasha Berkman – played with a rote, inorganic anger by Fernando Gonzalez; the work he does here vs his first role as Louis Lingg is indistinguishable in affect and tone) than her own suffering and struggles to uproot the political sphere.   The music is largely forgettable, except for the parts which substitute anarchistic goals for the lyrics of “The Star Spangled Banner”. It’s around the third time the musical shoves them into your ears that I felt such anger and heaviness.

    There’s so much potential in any one of the half-hearted stories within Red Emma and the Mad Monk.  The fault lies entirely in the choices made by the playwright and director. A play based on teenagers following blind acceptance to what version of truth ekes out from Twitter.  An unflinching look at Emma Goldman, her losses, her struggles and disillusionment after being deported back to Russia. A narrative focused on Rasputin himself, drafting multiple possibilities to what true individual he may have been.   Or, using the last minute character introduction of shadowy political figure and confidante of Vladmir Putin , Vladislav Surkov (played with a steely, charming danger by Jonathan Randell Silver) as a lens by which to further understand propaganda and political theatre in modern Russia.  Following just one in earnest, compassionate detail would make for a far better show than Emma and the Mad Monk. While there’s gorgeous scenic and audio/visual design (thanks to Diggle, John Salutz, and Luther Frank), I left feeling like I’d swallowed a fistful of cotton candy – I’d done so much work to get it down, and in the end, it felt empty, saccharine, and disposable.  

Red Emma and the Mad Monk is produced by Emma Orme and the The Tank and runs until September 1st at The Tank (312 W 36th. St. First Floor)  

http://www.thetanknyc.org/theater/1171-red-emma-the-mad-monk/

Beloved Packs an Emotional Punch

11 Aug

Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan
Have you loved someone so much that you thought you’d die without them? In facet, the very air you breathed depended on their existence? If you can relate to this unhealthy gut- wrenching need then you’ll relate to Beloved brought to us by the Scandinavian American Theater Company. This play, written by Lisa Langseth, has great emotional depth and force, but lacks many logistical details that leave us confused. As a result, this play could be a powerhouse but the red flags it raises detract from its overall impact.

Katerina is in a rotten suburb and yearns for a world filled with culture and refinery. In her current predicament she is living with her blue colored boyfriend Matthias, who has no interest in art, society and the finer things in life. When Katerina lands a job as a receptionist in a concert hall, she meets Adam, an illustrious composer who has everything Katerina seemingly wants. Eventually the two have an affair. Yet, Adam is married with a baby. This does not stop the two of them and Katerina develops a blinding need for Adam and she can not live without him. She learns the hard way that all that glitters is not gold.

In this one woman show Ellinor Dilorenzo does a remarkable job capturing the sick emotional incessant need that Katerina feels for Adam. Her pain is palpable and heart breaking to witness. As a general rule, I do not go to see one person shows. I tend to find them tedious to listen to. Watching one person drone on and on for nearly 90 minutes can feel like an eternity and lacking action. But Dilorenzo gives us a performance that is anything that is boring. We follow her harrowing heart ache fully and are with her every step of the way.

Unfortunately, the script is not fully fleshed out. There are many details missing that take us out of the world of the play. For example, we are never quite sure where we are. It seems like we are in Europe, but there are some specific American references that make us unsure of where this story is happening. Throughout the play Katerina is putting things in a suitcase, but we never know where she is going or leaving from? The last location of the play is set in her grandma’s apartment and she says Adam can now visit her any time. But where is the grandma and if the grandma is dead how is the unemployed Katerina living there? All of these loose ends add up and eventually take us out of the world of the play. There is an unnecessary and melodramatic event in the middle of the play that is jarring and not believable. It is a rather big plot twist, yet  is dealt with in less than five minutes, which  makes us wonder why it is there in the first place?

This is a shame because DiLorenzo does her best to keep us emotionally invested and she mostly succeeds. Her talent is undeniable, but the scripts flaws are too big to ignore. This is a shame because Beloved packs an emotional punch that lands strongly. Yet, like a house without a strong foundation, it can only hold so much before it completely collapses.

Beloved plays now through August 18, 2018 at Theater Row 410 W 42nd St. http://www.SATCNYC.ORG

Comfort Women Sits Uncomfortably

4 Aug

Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan

 

There is nothing worse than going to a show and within the first minute you know what the entire plot is going to be. True, in classical works this is expected, but in a new musical like Comfort Women this knowledge sucks the air out of the play before it even officially begins. While understanding the topic of the piece can be informative, the play itself has to have something unexpected to happen in order to grab the audience. Unfortunately, this musical had few surprises in it which made it feel too familiar, which downplayed its impact significantly.

The show opens with some captions written across a screen, which gives too much away. Korean women were captured by the Japanese during WW II and forced to be sex slaves. The women bond together The play follows Goeun, one of the Korean women enslaved. She eventually meets Minsick, a Korean soldier who is serving in the Japanese army The two of them create a love story that is unnecessary and cliché. You can probably guess the rest of the story line as I did.

There are a few significant problematic moments in this show. One has to deal with the choreography. The actors seemed to be uncomfortable doing it and some were always a beat behind, throwing off the intended synchronicity. Most of the time the dancing seemed out of place and like it was just forced into the piece. The exception is when the actress playing Soonja sings “Butterfly in Moonlight”. During the number the ensemble uses white flowing fabric to make a picture of the girl as a butterfly. This moment was executed well and had intention,unlike most of the other choreography

Another detrimental area was the fight sequences. The stage combat was so fake that it made them seen laughable and took us out of the world of the play. Instead of enhancing the horrific nature of abuse that these women endured, it detracted from the situation and removed its efficacy. A more sophisticated approach to this area is needed to make it believable.

What saves this play is its talented cast, Abigail Cholarader plays Goeun and acts her butt off. She, almost single handedly, saves the shows from utter despair. Her piercing voice shine through and we can listen to her forever. She brings a sense of honesty that breaks through all the chaos unfolding around her. On the other hand, while not the strongest vocalist, Matthew Bautista adds much needed comedy to this dark world. What he may lack as a singer, is more than made up for in his acting chops.

While Comfort Women definitely has the potential to be a powerhouse, in its current state it is more like an attempt to replicate of Miss Saigon. There is definitely a story here that needs to be told, but it needs more originality before reaching its crucible.

Comfort Women plays now through August 9, 2018 at the Peter J sharp Theater 416 W 42nd St. http://www.comfortwomenmusical.com/

http://www.comfortwomenmusical.com/

The Pattern at Pendarvis is Simply Perfect!

20 Jul

Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan

 

How many times throughout history have minorities made significant contributions, only to be forgotten about because of prejudice and intolerance? Such is the case of Edgar and Rob, two gay men who were responsible for keeping Pendarvis running in Wisconsin during the 1930’s. They restored cottages and preserved the original architecture of Cornish-built limestone houses that were falling apart in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. Their heroic efforts were responsible for saving this lead mining town from certain extinction. The Pattern at Pendarvis by Dean Gray reveals their true story of charity and love. Until now, Rob and Edgar’s story has largely been an omission in historical books because of their lifestyle. In the 1930’s two gay men were seen as degenerates, nothing else. But thankfully, now, we can truly understand and appreciate what these to men did for the town and celebrate their love story.

In today’s theater so much emphasis is put into staging and spectacle, that we forget the profundity of simple connection between actors and audience and storytelling. Placed on a basic set with three main chairs, three men share their stories with us. When Rich, a gay author in his thirties, approaches Edgar he makes it clear that he is interested in interviewing Edgar and telling all of Edgar’s remarkable tale; everything from the saving of the town to the more intimate details of his relationship to his lover Rob. However, Norm, the conservative president of the Pendarvis board, wants the homosexual details left out of the interview. Forces clash as the interview continues.

What makes this an astounding production is the connection between Lawrence Merritt, Edgar and Gregory Jensen, Rich. The men are separated by 60 years and throughout the play they develop a deep understanding and respect for one another. Their newly formed companionship is beautifully poignant. Merritt is engaging, endearing, and forthright in his convictions about his 44 year long relationship with Rob. There is power in his stillness and we do not ever get tired of listening to his unbelievable story. He is every bit as compelling as Jensen, whose sincerity is never fake. The two have breath-taking chemistry. We believe every word Jensen says and are forever grateful that this character, based on a real person, took the time and care to unearth this unheard story. David Murray Jaffe plays Norm with panache and we love to hate him. A job well done!

These men, Edgar and Rob did not get the credit they deserved for their efforts in the 1930’s. Like many influential people, they were robbed of their place in history because of intolerance. But luckily, we have people today who are trying to change that. I love going to the theater and learning about something important that really happened. This is a definite must see and another perfect example of theater that matters!

The Pattern at Pendarvis plays now through Aug 5, 2018 at HERE 145 sixth ave. www.spincyclenyc.com/index.php/theater/397-pendarvis

Grabbing P***y Gives us a lot to think About

19 Jul

Reviewed by Gregor Collins

 

Longtime Performance Artist Karen Finley’s current visits to the Laurie Beechman Theatre for staged readings based on her new book GRABBING PUSSY are not for the faint of heart—so that should have you seeing it. What to expect? I’ll let Finley tell you: “Breathless cascades of poetry and prose that lay bare the psycho-sexual obsessions that have burst to the surface of today’s American politics.”

If this sounds a little esoteric, I’ll simplify it for you: She makes art out of news. And the art she makes is hard to ignore. In the tradition of Allen Ginsberg’s 1954 poem Howl, Finley’s rapid-fire meditations cover a milieu of up-to-the-minute affairs including Spade and Bourdain’s suicide, the separation of families at the border, and the #MeToo movement.

Since I assume you read these reviews to get an honest, unpretentious critique from a regular person, I’ll describe my experience like this: If you were to have been my guest last Sunday when I attended the performance, and in the first two minutes you wanted to see how I was feeling about it, you would have gotten a very decided eye-roll. But if you had checked in with me around minute ten, I would have been too unwittingly seduced by her lilting musings to have given you a response. That sentiment carried through to the end.

Grabbing Pussy runs every Sunday at 7pm from July 15 – 29, 2018 at The Laurie Beechman Theater (inside West Bank Cafe at 407 West 42nd Street), General admission is $22, or $35 which includes a signed book. To purchase
tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit www.SpinCycleNYC.com.