The Open Gate Leaves Itself “Open” to Criticism

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?

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

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

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 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

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?


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:

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)