Holy Ghost, Holy Cow

Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan

“Live and let live” and transformation. Theses are the words that kept reverberating through my  head as I was watching Holy Ghosts by Romulus Linney, brought to us by Theatre East. The large ensemble does a remarkable job of moving and acting as if they were one person. Their connection to each other is great and they bring this emotionally charged play to life..

What happens when a struggling couple,Nancy and Coleman, get caught up in the frenzy of rattlesnake inspired Christian evangelists? Do people really transform through this extreme religious order or are they just plain crazy? These are central questions in Linney’s provocative look into this cult like sect of Christianity. Throughout the play we get glimpses into the unhappy and unhealthy relationship that Nancy and Coleman are trapped in. This prompts Nancy to seek a divorce and find love with an older man who is old enough to be her father.

The ensemble shines in this piece. They fit well together; just like a fine jigsaw puzzle. I could praise each and everyone of them as they deserve it. But I must give credit to Oliver Palmer, who plays Coleman. At first, Palmer merely comes off as the abusive drunken husband who just yells all the time. But like a great slow cooked meal, his layers peel off and we start to see his humanness. By the end of the play we love, or at least, empathize with this lost soul. He is captivating and compelling to watch. Equally impressive is Lizzy Jarrett, who plays Nancy. Her journey is profound and her nuanced performance is stunning. But, the show stealer just might be, Matthew Napoli as Carl Specter. At first glance, Napoli seems laughable as he mopes around the stage. Then he reveals the horrific death of his dog and we are heartbroken, at the verge of tears. I think all animal lovers would agree. His torment and sorrow are so real that we connect with him powerfully.

The climax of the play, which I will not divulge, made for audible gasps throughout the audience. It is too bad that this show ended October 6, 2018 as it is one of the finest off Broadway shows I have seen in awhile. Hats off to everyone involved and I can honestly say “Holy Ghosts”, Holy cow!

Holy Ghosts closed at Urban Stages on Oct. 6, 2018 http://www.theatreeast.org

Fusion Bridges Some Great Moments with Unfortunate Cliches

Reviewed By Jara Jones

What happens when a Massachusetts couple (Allison and Daniel, dating for six months), are faced with the unexpected news that Daniel’s been offered an immediate screenwriting job in Los Angeles?  Do the two of them choose to accelerate their relationship, uproot their lives, and move in together? Is it possible to keep the playful, caring love they feel?

Fusion has a masterful pedigree; Brian Dudkiewicz’s set is inviting and carefully crafted.  He’s made that black box feel like a genuine home, combining his gift of layered, compassionate space with Jared M Silver’s detailed props, illuminating and complementing Allison’s life. Katie Honaker’s lovely direction celebrates that technical playing field, adding natural, sometimes microscopic touches to keep the characters kinetic and connected.

The acting in the production is a treat.  I’d watch a whole play devoted to just lead actress Madeleine Maby. Her work as Allison is engaging and generous.  She drives the soul of the play; every minute reaction, every vulnerable act is a joy.   She pushes Charlie Wilson (Daniel) to come to her level, and for a good portion of the production, their mutual gifts rise above the text.

Adam Parrish’s script, unfortunately, does not fully support the crafted roles of cast and crew. A play with three-dimensional issues is hampered by the playwright’s limited point of view. There’s a poignant line Allison delivers in the final scene: “I don’t want a little boy’s answer”.  And I’m with her. I don’t want anymore “little boy romantic comedies”, where we’re just supposed to buy into the fact that Allison loves Daniel, despite his many displayed flaws and on-again off-again commitment to love, and that, through informed ability only (not through action on stage) we need to take it on faith that that Daniel Goodman is a good man.

It has become harder and harder to fully invest in romantic comedies where a woman plays the role of the pseudo-mother, endlessly forgiving, able to soothe the man at the cost of her own aspirations.  We get too little information about Allison, an independent, strong- willed chef to the Cambridge, MA elite. We don’t truly discover why she’s connected to a man she just can’t quit and what all that we witness means to her.

The wit and banter between Allison and Daniel are by far the best parts the play. I truly wish that those heartfelt genuine moments outweighed the tropes and gimmicks so often seen in romantic comedy of today.  Ultimately, Fusion has a dynamic and extremely dedicated ensemble, and the chemistry between Maby and Wilson is compelling. Come see the show alone for how the two of them take all the show’s flaws and still deliver a memorable evening.

Fusion is produced by A 7th Sign Production and runs until October 14th at The Actors Theatre Workshop (145 West 28th St, 3rd Floor)

www.fusiontheplay.com

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

Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan

There was a time when seeing a piece of theater that’s great and historically accurate would have made me impressed. That, alone, would have been enough for me to write a completely praiseworthy review. You Wouldn’t Expect, produced by the American Bard Theater, is all of these noteworthy 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 perform. 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. This happens despite the fact that the 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 reach its full impact, which could send a message that transcends mere production. 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.

But back to the show itself. 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 among those affected 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 everything Mary Tom asks. We side with Temperance as she endures 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

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

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

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

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/