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The Emperor’s Nightingale Soars

3 Dec

Reviewed by Jara Jones

     How do you take a lesser known Hans Christian Anderson story (Nattergalen), which many have argued was the writer himself working through his frustrated feelings of unrequited love, and elevate the text?  What individual choices must be made to yolk the tale into a depiction of 18th century Chinese history, yet still make the production engaging for children and adults?  Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s production of THE EMPEROR’S NIGHTINGALE pulls off the answers to these questions quite handsomely, delivering a work that’s as gorgeous to watch as it is delightful and thought-provoking.

      In our play, it’s 1723, and the Emperor of China (a stoic, grounded performance by Brian Kim) must decide which of his heirs – Prince Bao (played well with charm and an honest imperfection by Jonathan Frye), or Bao’s older half-brother Prince Hongshi (Roger Yeh giving the character’s bullying actions a surprising vulnerability) should replace him to lead the Qing dynasty.  Faced with a test of leadership and the need to possess a deep knowledge of the country’s citizens, Bao and Hongshi square off to compete for their father’s admiration and his ultimate prize. Who will win – the prince with access to the favors and inventions of the Italians (such as a mechanized storytelling bird – the one of a handful of links to Anderson’s story), or the man who learns about the strife shouldered by China’s individuals with help from a magical nightingale?

    Here’s what really got me; having seen so much children’s theatre, having performed so much children’s theatre Off-Broadway for years, you run into the common, tired tropes.  Audience participation, clear, unambiguous heroes and villains, sugary morals which dissolve in the mind soon after consumption of the performance. THE EMPEROR’S NIGHTINGALE ingeniously deconstructs every single one of these clichés; the hero we’re supposed to cheer is prideful and ignorant and cold at times. The villains are fueled by honest behaviors – estrangement from their father, a pragmatic approach to save the culture and customs of a nation by brokering deals with its potential colonizers.  When we’re asked to join the show and provide our voices, it’s a welcome break from the tense and overwhelming somber narrative of the play. And it’s so captivating and lingering how the play uses eight Chinese ideograms to bookmark each chapter of this story. When the final sentence using all these signifiers is revealed, you’ll want to rush home (like I did) to decode the message, which reveals itself to be a beautiful summation of the work.

    You-Shin Chen deserves a huge round of applause for her austere, yet eye-catching set design. The framing nature of the set gives the production this indelible feeling like we’re watching the pages of a folk tale come alive. The choice to make the boundaries beyond the frame lush with paper lanterns adds a timeless quality to accent the weight of the ideograms, thanks to Chen and Leslie Smith (lighting designer).  Joseph Wolfslau’s sound design charges each scene with adult tension, and it’s one of many factors which gives this show so much depth and care. Lastly, Karen Boyer’s costumes (especially for the animals) burst with vitality and color.

    I want to talk now about the actors, and how much I appreciated their contribution to this piece.  Leanne Cabrera as the Nightingale takes a role which, in the hands of a lesser actor, would have come off as syrupy and pouting, and instead hits you in the gut with her intensity and determination. This bird is not one to sing blithely; she demands that the troubles she’s seen be addressed, that the villages she’s witnessed broken and destroyed be made healthy and prosperous once more.  Also, every time the primary actors took on a second or third role, they astound you with the playfulness and commitment they possess; Brian Kim and Ya Han Chang’s transformation from Emperor and Empress to dopey, gossiping pandas, or scheming mechanical birds. Roger Yeh and Dinh James Doan’s deft tonal switch from their darker roles as Prince Hongshi and Minister Wu into a sultry, sassy, yet still dangerous tiger.  Here’s a powerful thing which I discovered two days later; it didn’t occur to me that Yeh was the head of the tiger. The giggling, suave predator felt so different in energy than his work as Hongshi that when the curtain call arrived, I was honestly upset that the actor playing the tiger wasn’t taking bows. Really. Yeh’s performance had me so glued to his choices, his affable menace, and I celebrate his work as an actor.

    As you can tell, I haven’t had this much fun watching a show in quite a while. Pan Asian Repertory Theatre embarks on new ground by creating a production reaching out to children of all ages, yet never loses its determined, precise focus on Asian history and its artistic elements championed within.  You have to see this show. There’s nothing else being made in the city right now which will give you the same level of entertainment, educated insight, and disarming, heartfelt performances.

The Emperor’s Nightingale is produced by Pan Asian Repertory Theatre and runs until December 16th at The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row (410 W 42nd St) Running time is 55 minutes with no intermission.

Lured Lures us in and Doesn’t Let go!

10 Nov

Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan

The urge for revenge and justice can be quite strong in the face of trauma. But do two wrongs make a right? What happens when we take the law into our own hands? Well for LGBT+ people in Russia this is sadly a reality they fight against every day. To make matters worse the Russian government is sanctioning hate crimes, which further puts them at risk. Thanks to Frank J. Avella, we get a glimpse into the horror that plagues the gay community in Russia. This is happening today. It is real. His new play Lured exposes us to these crimes against humanity.

Enter Zhanna, whose brother was tortured horrifically by one of these underground extremist cults. Her Brother Dmitry fell pray to the unbelievable hate that Tatiana and Sergei, members of a hate group, are consumed with. Unfortunately, Dmitry dies due to the beating he received from them. This lays the ground for his sister Zhanna to plot actions against Tatiana and Serge, especially when the authorities did not act.

It is hard to watch the show because it makes you want to yell and scream at the inhumane treatment happening on stage. Tatiana must be a challenging a role for any actor to play. Yet, somehow Cali Gilman digs deep to unearth the heartless beast of Tatiana. My hat goes off to her, the actor not the character. David Joseph Volino is captivating as Yuri, ,Zhanna’s husband. He probably had the least number of lines and could have easily checked out. Yet, every time I watched him he was truly living in the moment and experiencing the absolute terror of the situation he finds himself in. He did not need to speak to communicate how scared he was by the shear insanity he had to endure.

My one slight criticism of this provocative, in-your-face play is when Tatiana speaks about her brother. I know the playwright, Frank Avella’s reasoning for including this. But instead of making the oppressed and the oppressor connect, it seems unnecessary and forced into the play. Avella has a powerful play and I didn’t want to be taken out of the moment of the main story and that is what it did. But, that withstanding is minor compared to this knockout play.

This isn’t a play for the faint of heart, but sometimes we need to be jolted back into reality and bare witness to the awful things happening in other countries. Lured is timely, relevant to our political climate, and heart wrenching. There were audible gasps of outrage throughout this 70 minute glimpse into Russian persecution. This is a prime example of Theater That Matters!

Lured plays now through Nov. 25, 2018 at Theater for the New City, 155 1st ave.


The Open Gate Leaves Itself “Open” to Criticism

16 Oct

 Reviewed By Jara Jones

      When tackling Isaac Bashevis Singer’s work, one has to have a distinct point of view. Do you stylize your production as a form of self-commentary depicting the specific time and faiths held by your characters?  Or, do you present the text with an objective eye, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions?

    The Open Gate is a musical adaption of Singer’s THE MANOR, centered around a deeply pious businessman (Calman Jacoby) whose prosperity allows him to make a controversial choice as a Jew: to acquire a manor in a predominant neighborhood and expand his wealth.  We’re treated to a broad focus on Jacoby’s family as well as the citizens of 1860’s Poland. Ultimately, Jacoby is tested by the modern world and his rising social status, forcing him to examine his religion and moral code.

    Mark Marcante’s set design wonderfully makes use of gentle suggestion through the presentation of stoic columns, an ivy trellis masking the theater’s stairs, and rivets our focus to the titular gate.  It’s open, yet massive and imposing as well – an entrance which offers easy access, yet almost impossible to one to exit. Carolyn Adam’s costumes offer a welcome specificity and attention to the time period.  Joel Martin’s work as Calman Jacoby is both engaging and subtle, guiding each choice with vulnerable assuredness. Also, the cast is thankfully diverse and avoids the tired excuse that historical productions must be blindly rooted in the exact race each character would have been.

    All of the above is to be applauded.  However, the musical as a whole is a lopsided mess.  From the opening scene (which feels like the “It’s a Small World” version of the town of Jampol, complete with Russian soldiers behaving in a slapstick fashion while arresting citizens, their toy rifles lazily jabbing at their victims) to the long overdue, vague finale, the production comes off like a one-dimensional morality play.  It asks us to pity and feel connected to these thinly written characters without investing in or earning such a reaction. The choices of the direction and script clang with modern behavior and annoying reminders of what the playwright assures us is backward customs (I lost count how many times ritual baths were brought up as the sign of losing faith and the last threads of culture.)   The use of projections offers nothing but a distraction and feel sorely out of place – as evidenced by the actors knocking the screen time and again in scenes. Finally, in the current world of Kavanaugh and #metoo, having a college-aged actress portray Jacoby’s eight-year-old daughter, nibbling sloppily on a cookie like a four-year-old while sitting on her father’s lap, naively agreeing to become a child bride, feels gross and demeaning.  If the playwright wanted us to be uprooted by Jacoby’s decision to cast off his girl into an arranged marriage, either cast an actor of the appropriate age and/or don’t have our narrator (Shaindel) immediately proclaim to the audience that this marriage ended up being the happiest and most fulfilling one of all her father’s girls. Finally, the music feels jarring and unneeded. Nothing is sung that is that is little more than a repetition of the character’s prior dialogue, and there’s no music which stays with you after the show has concluded.

    The Open Gate tries so hard to encapsulate a bird’s eye view of the Jacoby family as well as the citizens of Jampol, to make us sympathize and draw humor from each character’s decisions, but just falls flat on each turn.  When the first act ended, I felt surprised that we had another 75 minutes to go. All the essential struggles and fates of the principal characters had already been shown; what remained was padding. There’s a good hour and a half play (not musical) inside this show.  A tale of a family, a town unraveled by time and questioning one’s faith. I encourage the artistic team to find this truth.


The Open Gate runs until October 27th at Theater for the New City (155 First Ave, NY, NY 10003)

Who is to Blame for the Downfall of Man?

14 Oct

Reviewed by Gregor Collins


The Seeing Place Theater Artistic Directors Erin Cronican and Brandon Walker could have easily bitten off more than they could chew by attempting The Hysteria of Dr. Faustus—the German legend about an old man named Faust who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for more time, more power, and more happiness.

They could have thrown together an erudite-looking poster, told all their erudite friends to come, and sat back and felt—even if people leaving the theater couldn’t quite wrap their heads around it—that they had already succeeded: At least we had the guts to tackle one of the most complex stories ever told.

But—and this is coming from a hardened theater critic—they went further than that, (mostly) pulling off something I don’t think many other independent theater companies could have pulled off in quite the same way.

They make it their own in a multitude of ways, but their modern twist—The Devil being played by a woman (Cronican) rather than a man—adds a unique dynamic between the two leads that serves well in certain scenes. For example, when Faust is trying to make a play on Gretchen (played by Broghanne Jessamine), The Devil, through exchanges only the two can hear, gives Faust cheeky play-by-play courtship pointers—“Kiss her, relax, don’t sit like that,” etc—lending a levity to moments that otherwise would have been nonsensical with two men.

“Another thing that was important in bringing the story to life,” explains Cronican, who also directs the play, “is the magical element, for which we used lush projections, sleight of hand magic, and haunting music. We want our modern audience to have a feeling of the story being graphically presented, not only to invigorate their imaginations but also to make the thriller aspect of the play more hair-raising and immediate.”

Walker, who plays Faust and also wrote the script, opens the play as a curmudgeon fighting depression and boredom. Over the course of the play we watch him blossom into a charismatic British novelist, so adroitly in fact, that we somehow can’t ever imagine him going back to being an old man.

Though there have been many iterations of the folklore over the centuries, the most popular are the two plays The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, and Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The text Walker primarily worked from during the writing process, though, was Historia & Tale of Doctor Johannes Faustus, written by an “anonymous German author.”

“The play is very relevant today,” says Walker, “and yet there were no versions of it that we could find that were modern or easily understandable. You don’t get to see why the actions are happening. I spoke with a well-known playwright recently who had given a shot at an adaptation of Dr. Faustus and got swallowed up in the complexities of the story, never quite completing it. I was swallowed up but we had a show to get up, and so we just made it happen.”

Walker may have written the twisting and turning script, but it was a real team effort to put it to stage. All four actors—Walker, Cronican, Jessamine, and Candice Oden, who plays Martha—were instrumental in its development for an audience.

If I had my druthers I would have significantly shortened the script—at an over two-hour running time, towards the end it began to feel slightly lumbering—but there isn’t much to complain about here, especially because it rewards you with a sudden, surprise ending.

In the Off-Off Broadway world, while it’s fairly often that you see something visually inventive, or something that makes you think, “Team Seeing Place” manages to marry them both, a much rarer feat, deserving of packed houses.


THE HYSTERIA OF DR FAUSTUS plays October 7-21, 2018 GENERAL ADMISSION – $20 (select tickets $10) The Seeing Place @ the Paradise Factory 64 East 4th Street, NYC


Holy Ghost, Holy Cow

7 Oct

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

Fusion Bridges Some Great Moments with Unfortunate Cliches

29 Sep


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)

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. 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