Archive | May, 2018

Women on Fire Burn up the Stage!

24 May

Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan

 

As a rule, I do not like monologue heavy plays or one-person shows. It can become too tedious and predictable, and can sometimes feel like a lecture instead of a dramatic story. However there is an exception to every rule, right? Women on Fire, produced by Royal Family, delivers us a smart and poignant piece of theatre that is just long enough to keep our attention but not long enough that it becomes burdensome or heavy handed. There 70 minute show it’s like a lean piece of meat, no fat just all the flavor and tenderness that you want.

The myriad of female performers tell us everything that they feel is paramount to discuss. From political rage to sexual assault to Bill Cosby, the topics discussed vary but they all have strong messages. These women muster up all of their enthusiasm and talent to let us know what’s on their minds. Although there are too many, in the well put together ensemble, to list individually, each one is praiseworthy and deserves accolades.  Hearing these women speak so passionately is a treat for the audience and we never get bored. There are roughly twenty monologues coming together to explain why these women are on “fire” to express themselves about the important issues that the evening covers. It truly is an amazing thing to note the copious ground they touch on in their individual pieces. By the end of the evening, the audience doesn’t know which topic to address first as they all seem vital and necessary to address now.

Writer and director Chris Henry does an outstanding job weaving these stories together. She uses four beautiful dancers to transition us from one piece to the next. This makes it feel like a tapestry ornately sewn together, instead of mish-mosh of isolated incidents which the audience is ever so thankful about. Lorma Ventura choreographs some interesting and provocative movement that creates an ensemble on stage and unifies the piece. The tempo and rhythm are perfectly synced making for a riveting evening of theater. The audience hears the womens’ pleas for change, and if like me, leave feeling ready and inspired to take on the world. If you want thought, provoking, edgy, and no holds barred theater then go check out these ‘Hot’ (get it, they’re on fire) women.

Women on Fire plays now through June 1, 2018 at 145 W 46th St. http://www.royalfamilyproductions.org

This is Family is not a Close knit One

19 May

Reviewed by Jara Jones

 

Before we begin, do me a favor right now.  Go to https://www.youcaring.com/thisisfamilyoneactplays-1130606 and give what you can to support producers Narci Regina and Samantha Lynn Parry for making the brave step to bring their stories and their artistic vision from Philadelphia to NYC.  I know full well their challenge as acting students competing to have their talents and voices seen amidst a sea of wealthier, more insular college and conservatory showcases. I commend them for their ambition and dedication; like any work-in-progress, there are shining, pure moments and rough edges.

In our frightened world, what exists, what remains of the concept of “family”?  Through a series of one-acts, the students of Playhouse West seek to upend and re-examine familial constructs.  As I Am presents a story of a daughter coming out to her deeply religious mother. Pickle Jar focuses on an interracial marriage and their career struggles.  Home deals with the fate of two young women in foster care, and their burning desire to re-connect with their alcoholic mother. Lastly, Brothers and Sisters and Husbands and Wives highlights estrangement between siblings brought on by their parent’s unexpected divorce.

The scripts, mostly having been written, directed, and featuring the actors themselves, suffer from the constant attention of a single artist’s narrow range of vision.   There’s two things you shouldn’t do; you should never cut your own hair, and you shouldn’t direct yourself (and you should never direct yourself in something you’ve written and in which you act).  For theatre to have depth and precision, an outside eye, a creative, neutral director is mandatory.  Otherwise, you end up with broad work, where the exploration of telegraphing feeling within the performer comes before the primary goal of an artist: storytelling.  

My two favorite actors in the production, Carly Mazzochetti and Carrie Brennan, truly understood the gentle honesty and simplicity required to make a black box theatre performance resonate.  They’re both aided by the fact that their characters in each scene reacted to the main conflict thrust upon them, rather than incited the confrontation. Mazzochetti endows her role with a wry and weary grace, and isn’t afraid to let silence inform her choices.   Brennan, as the sister in Brothers and Sisters and Husbands and Wives, is tasked with portraying a role with a 15-year time change, and manages to make her youthful teenager and despondent adult both realized and engaging.  

This is Family is a deeply flawed production with so much potential.  There’s ample amount of talent onstage which could benefit from a structured hand.  Choosing collaboration and exploration over singular voices as well as employing the stewardship of a unified director would take these artists and raise them to the level of compelling theatre that I know they can create.  

 

This Is Family runs until May 19th at The Royal Theater at the Producers Club (358 West 44th St.)  http://www.playhousewest.com/this-is-family-5-one-act-plays.html

Happy Birthday Wanda June isn’t Such a Party

19 May

Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan

We have all heard of the challenges Veterans can have when returning from war. Happy Birthday Wanda June tells about some of this horrors that can plague men and women who serve in the military, and the struggle they face when they come home. Despite the Issues that the play tries to uncover, it is only half-way successful and thus its impact decreases.

Harold has been away from his wife for 8 years during the Vietnam War. During this time his wife Penelope has no idea if her husband is dead or alive. Penelope starts seeing other men until one day, out of the blue, Harold returns. Eight years is a long time to wait for someone even if they are your husband. So what is she supposed to do when Harold returns? Alarmingly, Harold is not the same man she once knew and had children with. The rest of the play deals with these issues and there aftermath.

The play definitely has potential to be a powerful vehicle for people to understand the experience of those who experience the unspeakable trauma of war.  Unfortunately, the cast never finds the true rhythm of piece and this significantly lessens its efficacy. Craig Wesley Divino plays Harold. The actor works very hard to layer on behaviors and affectations to signify how much being at war has changed him. He makes bold choices while playing his character. Yet, they don’t seem to be coming out of honesty. This makes him look disjointed and uncomfortable on stage. All of the extra things, he plays with, well they seem extra. His comical moments don’t land and the audience doesn’t quite know how to react to him. This is a shame because Devino has talent, but it just doesn’t all add up in his performance. However, Kate Maccluggage, as Penelope, finds the true moments of her character and plays them well.

There are some loose ends in the script that could use tightening up. Towards the end of act one, we discover that Harold has jungle fever, which could explain for his mannerisms. However, this circumstance seems forgotten about in the rest of the play. If it’s not going to be dealt with in the rest of the play, why mention it all? Also, the character of Wanda June does not make much sense and her appearances cause confusion. While it is clear who she is and what she represents, we are never quite sure of the necessity of her character.

As much as I applaud the plays intent to educate and inform us, I left dissatisfied with its execution. It is hard to say where the blame lies, Is it the writing or the acting? Whatever the case may be, we can hope it will improve in subsequent performances and revisions. No doubt it has great potential, but right now it is a diamond in the rough.

 

Happy Birthday Wanda June plays now through June 2, 2018 at the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond St. http://www.happybirthdaywandajune.com

Alternate Currents Gives us an Alternative View!

12 May

Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan

“It would be a shame to throw the whole strand (of Christmas lights) away, just because of a few broken bulbs”. But how often do we throw the baby out with the bathwater? Just because there are a few bad apples does that mean the whole bunch is bad? These questions can be applied to many different things, but in the case of Alternating Currents, by Adam Kraar, they are deeply rooted in one thing; community. The Working Theater brings us a thought-provoking ethnographic piece of theater (plays based on the real actual lived experience of others).

At our deepest core, don’t we all want to feel like we belong? For newly formed couple, Elena and Luke who met from being part of the electricians’ union, this is of paramount importance. This inner need motivates them to move to Electchester, a cooperative building for unionized electricians located in Queens, NY. At first this seems like a no brainer; who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by like-minded people who look out for each other? And with low monthly maintenance costs, moving to Electchester seems like a dream come true. But as the saying goes: all that glitter is not gold. Lurking under this appearing utopia are racial and gender based tensions that run very deep. This forms a wedge between Elena and Luke who are a bi-racial couple. Can they survive the pervasive undercurrents of class and racial divisions that have taken hold in this place?

The cast is delightful. Liba Vaynberg plays the quirky Elena skillfully. Her need to belong and her need for Luke are palpable. She carries the story along well, as there are many scene changes and shifts from the past to the present. She never gets lost in the midst of the surrounding chaos, which is a salute to her talent. Luke, played by Jason Bowen, is equally impressive. His inner story line is heard loud and clear. These two actors have chemistry and a connection that makes us root wholeheartedly for the success of their relationship. The other four ensemble members shape-shift well playing multiple characters. Hats off to Rheaume Crenshaw and Robert Arcaro for doing this so well. Their transitions are distinct and seamless, which makes the play cohesive.

Doing a play with so many moving parts is daunting and can easily become disjointed and burdensome for the audience. But thanks to strong direction by Kareem Fahmy, we don’t miss a beat. The scenes flow together making this puzzle come together flawlessly. We are never confused as to where we are or who is talking. The credit here lies with the cast and crew. David Esler creates a set that is malleable, fun, and just informative enough to let us know where we are without adding unnecessary detail. A very impressive accomplishment all around.

The Working Theater pledges to bring us five different plays, one from each borough. As this one is the first in their series,this promises to be a worthwhile venture. This is definitely an important piece of theater that they uncovered through their efforts. Bravo to them for unearthing this timely production. If you love plays that not only teach you something, but make you question your values, then go see this play. This is a poignant example of how profound ethnographic theater can be and whatever your beliefs, it has something to teach us all.

Alternating Currents plays now through May 20, 2018 at Urban Stages 259 W 30th St. and then does a tour to all the boroughs. http://www.theworkingtheater.org

Seeing Place’s Whistleblower Series lets off Some Steam!

11 May

Reviewed by Michael Landes

A transgender survivor of Nazi Germany, an American activist for Palestine, and a centuries-old Greek tragedy may seem like an unusual assembly, but The Seeing Place Theater makes a great effort to bring these three parts together under the theme of calling out power. The company has called this project “The Whistleblower Series”, and the result, though wobbly at times, is an excellent, worthwhile exploration of injustice and personal responsibility.

Two plays, “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” and “I Am My Own Wife”, share many similarities––both written in the early 2000s, both critically acclaimed, and both one-person shows. But from there, they diverge. The former is a documentary play about the titular student-turned-activist (played by Erin Cronican), and draws the text of the play mostly from Corrie’s own journals and writings about her life before and during her solidarity work in Palestine. The play is split about evenly between these two portions of her life, the first largely set within her bedroom in an upper right corner of the performance space, and the latter allowing Ms. Cronican to travel through the rest of the space.

The conclusion of this piece was its highest point, but throughout Ms. Cronican did a remarkable job of inhabiting the young, idealistic and compassionate activist. At times, however, she seemed hindered by some production choices. In order to pay homage to the nature of the piece, she spent the majority of the first half reading from journals, thus hiding her face and making unclear any reason she might have to share this text with the audience. Coupled with her placement in the corner of the theater, this led to a largely static image that lasted for a not-insignificant amount of time.

“I Am My Own Wife” featured an equally dynamic and exciting performance from Brandon Walker, whose talent in transforming his physique is put to great use in the play. This allows him to alternate easily between over forty characters at the drop of a hat. Most frequently, however, he inhabits Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transgender woman who runs a small antique museum out of her house in East Berlin. On a trip to Germany, playwright Doug Wright discovers her museum with the help of his friend, journalist John Marks. Taken by her ability to survive through the Third Reich and Soviet control of Eastern Germany, Wright decides to interview her further. His tapes make up the backbone of the play, which weaves through her life, gay life in Eastern Germany, and the possibility that she informed for the Stasi. Walker makes for an especially unusual Charlotte, being easily over six feet tall, broad-shouldered, and deep-voiced, but this only contributes to the overall mythic aura of the tale. The audience is never unaware that this is a retelling of Charlotte’s story, a retelling powerfully done.

With such a vast library of characters, it is inevitable that a few descend into caricature, which is not necessarily a bad thing; however aggressively acting teachers may campaign, Mr. Walker need not produce a fully realized Stasi officer during every take Charlotte tells. But when these characters are central or near-central to the narrative, like John Marks, Wright’s friend, the narrative naturally changes. Walker ultimately comes off as an enemy of Wright’s cause, and though minor, this change transforms the play from being about Charlotte’s mysterious past to being about Wright’s crusade, a valid play, but one that perhaps is less interesting than the former.

The third play, “The People Vs. Antigone”, differed in that the text was an original adaptation of “Antigone” written and directed by Brandon Walker. Performances throughout were excellent, but at times seemed regrettably hindered by line memorization for multiple performers. The plot is largely untouched, but with some detail added––Eurydice (Isa Goldberg) receives a much expanded role, Haemon and Antigone are seen discussing their wedding and relationship, and Creon is portrayed as a misogynist. The first scene (of Creon revising his speech to the people) included multiple references to Trump, but both luckily and unluckily the text did not follow through on this throughout. Luckily, because overt Trump plays at this point only elicit sighs; unluckily, because without this specifically contemporary touch, the purpose behind the adaptation was unclear. The text didn’t quite make enough changes to justify performing “The People Vs. Antigone” instead of simply “Antigone”.

The set and tech, shared between all three, was genuinely impressive. At least seven projectors transformed the space in “Rachel Corrie” and “My Own Wife”, though they were used to better effect in the second piece; in “Rachel Corrie”, Palestine was conjured mostly through camouflage, her bedroom through abstract patterns. While in “My Own Wife” the projectors turned the space into a museum, a cabaret in a basement, a Stasi jail, and countless more locations. Another bit of stage magic in “My Own Wife” was the moment when Charlotte produces doll-sized furniture artifacts from a hatbox, representing her museum; this simple bit of performance was executed with great conviction, and became one of the best moments in a very good play. “The People Vs. Antigone” used the space brilliantly, including multiple scenes behind the audience in the bathrooms by the tech booth. Strangely, none of the three plays seemed to take full advantage of the set, specifically the small stage set in the upper left corner. However, when it was used, this piece of set was used brilliantly.

“The Whistleblower Series” is ultimately imperfect, but well worthwhile. Although “The Seeing Place Theater” claims that these are three works about calling out power, I would argue that they are in fact various interactions with power; having it, losing it, redistributing it, hiding, or withholding it. The three disparate parts ultimately join together into a fascinating exploration of these dynamics, one that is more than worth anyone’s time.

The Whistleblower series plays now through May, 13, 2018 at the Paradise Factory 64 E. 4th St. http://www.seeingplacetheater.com

Transparent Falsehood hits Many False Notes!

9 May

 

Reviewed By Jara Jones

 

There’s a line late in the play where Donald Trump (played with a disarming earnestness by Ezra Barnes) sneers at his doctor:  If you don’t know how to juggle, just throw the balls up in the air and run away.  And with that sentence, my frustrations with Transparent Falsehood became crystal clear.  The play is a barrage of disjointed, abandoned ideas – a raucous, aggressive soundtrack, lifeless puppets intended to represent straw men, a shimmering penis chandelier, a lone Confederate flag perched at attention among a sea of American banners.   Does it want to be obvious, outrageous camp to soothe people anxious about our current political clime? Does the piece desire for honest, unexpected drama, as the production notes claim, to offer “a renewed and poignant passport into the enveloping madness?” The play strives to cover both tonal shifts and in doing so, fails as either sharp satire or an eye-opening meditation on the life Donald Trump may lead outside of the political sphere.

How can you control your desired version of the truth when subjected to constant scrutiny and scorn?   Donald Trump, surrounded by his wheedling son Barron, his jaded wife Melania, his Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, along with the true object of his affections – his amenable daughter Ivanka and her hapless husband Jared, hatches upon a fool-proof plan, akin to what Nixon chose.  He decides to hire a camera crew to film him twenty-fours a day – while having sex, in the process of performing his one man special on HBO, even when comparing penis sizes with Bannon over a pair of urinals. The process of non-stop monitoring, and the toil it takes on Trump, along with his family and acquaintances, drives the heart of the play.  

Kudos to Lianne Arnold for her evocative, world-building projections.  I’ve never seen an artist create such fluid and mesmerizing landscapes in a black box theatre.  I wish the rest of the set design and transitions were as crisp and seamless. Stagehands between scenes grunt and bump actors while carrying large, ornately designed fixtures.  There’s a race car bed for Barron, (because, get it – he’s childish!) elaborate and bright red which is used once for less than ten minutes and then thoughtlessly discarded inches from the audience.  

Gil Kofman’s script and Richard Caliban’s direction are the root of the play’s complications.  Kofman writes with broad, slapstick strokes, and then undercuts what little tension or suspense exists almost immediately.  Caliban, rather than create a more three-dimensional story, directs the cast as to reduce every character to a mealy trope: Wyatt Fenner’s Barron pouts and preens, Stephanie Fredricks as Melania and the Teacher is reduced to tired stereotypes in dialect and dress. Latonia Phipps as Ivanka becomes little more than forbidden fruit for the Donald, a ball of surface exuberance. Chuck Montgomery leers and hulks around as Bannon/Additional Characters.

But the one shining light in the production was its casting of Ezra Barnes as Trump.  Despite what little he was given in words or direction, Barnes crackles with an earnest, natural gusto.  No matter what demeaning acts are called for , despite the tonal whiplash from scene to scene, he endows Trump with ease, in essence being more comfortable and self-assured in his skin than perhaps the very man himself.

I left the theatre feeling similar to stumbling out of a roller coaster; artificially shaken by its designers, frustrated and unable to appreciate the mish-mash of sights I’ve witnessed.  One last image kept cycling through my brain – a long, black pole with a cartoonish drawing of a penis and testicles, wagging up and down while Trump stylistically penetrates Melania. Surely, I wondered, staggering into the night, surely this was far from unexpected novelty or a poignant examination of a contentious figure.

Transparent Falsehood:  An American Travesty runs until May 19th at Theater 511 (511 W 54th St.)  https://www.transparentfalsehood.com

217 Boxes has Much to Say

9 May

Sometimes in order to move forward you have to look back at where you come from. For the gay community this is especially true. Thanks to Dr. John Fryer homosexuality was removed as a mental disease in 1972 by the American Psychological Association. 217 Boxes of Dr, Henry Anonymous tells the story of this extraordinary liberator for gay people everywhere.

This story isn’t your conventional narrative, it’s told from three perspectives. The first comes from a man, Alfred Gross. He was a owner of a”’social organization”, which helped homosexual men in the times before Dr. Fryer made his public statement. Gross asked Fryer to provide his psychiatric services for people suffering from oppression due to their “problem” (as it was seen back then). The second account of Dr. Fryer is told from the viewpoint on his secretary for 24 years, Katherine Luder. Luder describes her affairs (completely platonic) with the doctor beginning from after the 1972 proclamation up until her death during the AIDS crisis in the 1980’s. The third view point is poignantly told from Fryer’s father, Ercel. Ercel delivers a touching eulogy from beyond the grave about his brave son and how he came to accept him (even if it was after his death).

This is a hard play. Not because of the history it contains or the acting, but because of its shape. It’s three characters delivering monologues, one after another. Each actor speaks for about 20 to 25 minutes, requiring non stop active listening on part of the audience. This is not to say that the actors are not fabulous in their time on stage, they are! Derek Lucci plays Alfred with great pin-ash. He is flamboyant, yet endearing. He does not miss a beat and speaks directly to us pointedly. It is as if Lucci is looking into our souls, pleading for acceptance and understanding. And due to his commanding performance, we are more than ready to give it to him. Next up is Laura Esterman, playing Katherine Luder. Esterman has an unique delivery and plays with tempo masterfully. Her pauses are always marked with an emotional turning point in her recount of her experience with the doctor. Then, Ken Marks brings it home with his powerful reading of excerpts of the letter that his son wrote the APA. His journey from start to finish is the most profound, rendering him unforgettable! Marks transformation on stage brought me to tears a few times.

Despite the challenges of the script, this is a good strong ensemble and they deserve to be seen. They work their butts off and are enjoying every minute of it, which makes us want to listen to them. You could literally hear a pin drop throughout the entire 70 minute show. We breathed when they breathed, laughed when they laughed, and cried when they cried. Yes, you have to be a willing participant and pay close attention to get all that playwright and director, Ain Gordon has packed into this script. Although sometimes too poetic and highly intellectual in its writing, there are several moments of pure magic where the audience, actor, and writer connect making this an important and aesthetically pleasing piece of theater. They have something worthwhile to say, which is a treat for the Off-Broadway community. So if they have something important to say, who are we not to listen?

217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous plays May 3-May 11, 2018 at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th. http://217boxes.com