Saturday, December 18, 2010

Touch of the Buddha

Single Carrot Theatre stretches itself once again to present Gao Xingjian's the other shore. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, Gao has constructed an elusive play which was not elusive enough for Chinese Communist authorities, who banned its performance on the mainland. In 1995 Gao personally directed the premiere of the play in Hong Kong.

Composed of enigmatic scenes, the play features The Man (a sort of Chinese everyman) and a lythe ensemble of actors who cross a mysterious river (death? the frontier of a totalitarian state?) to undergo various tests of suffering. Writhing, singing, dancing, shouting in choral unison, the pilgrimage of the Man and his tribe endures the pain of learning language, of remembering the lost beloved, and of facing the fear of death. What may have angered the Communist authorities is that the troupe repeatedly faces the suffering of ostracism. Characters are killed for their nonconformity, scapegoated for imagined betrayals, and coerced into confessing as true what they know to be false. A scene set in a temple, replete with chant, incantations, candles, and incense, suggests that in the mystery of the Buddha these various sufferings might (or might not) find their ultimate redemption.

Expertly directed by J. Buck Jabaily, the ensemble brilliantly moves from Greek chorus to ballet corps to enraged mob through the play's undulating action. Nathan Fulton's candle-lit black and white design deepens the production's atmosphere of adoration and troubled dream. Dennis Elkins exudes the bewilderment and courage of the lonely Man who barely manages to keep his integrity amidst the pressures to social conformity and annihilation.

Influenced by disparate theatrical sources (Beckett, Grotowski, as well as traditional Chinese theatre), Gao offers a mysterious neo-Buddhist tale of the effort to maintain some individual freedom against the biological forces of death and the political forces of conformism. This is not Cartesian theater for those who savor the clear, distinct, and obvious. Presented by Single Carrot's energetic ensemble, the other shore offers up visual and audial dream images of what we find painful and elusive in the human effort to jump over what constrains.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Down and Out at Fells Point Corner

You've been there a hundred times before. You are racing into the subway entrance. A homeless panhandler aggressively demands change. You briskly speed up, certain that the money would only go to drugs and that your taxes are supporting a flood of social services this aggressor should use.

In Scorpions, Mark Scharf's new play for the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, the scenario has suddenly changed. William, a prim office worker, discovers that Mattie, the homeless beggar staking out a Washington subway stop, is more than meets the eye. Intrigued by the witty, Dickens-citing panhandler, William puts Mattie up at his apartment, brings her to the company happy hour, and starts an affair that may be more than Platonic. A hateful coworker, Derek specializes in humiliating William through racial slurs on William's Asian background and destroys his colleague's quirky affair through an attempted seduction of Mattie.

Scharf's dialogue crackles through this play's combination of comedy and melodrama. The sharp witty passages soften the somber action and outcome of the play. The dramatic scenes, notably the attempted seduction of Mattie, bristle with brittle, humiliating conflict. The play occasionally lags, as in the dangling monologues and in the more pedantic musings on ethnicity. But it successfully avoids the stereotypes associated with this genre of theater and keeps both the offbeat comedy and the emotional conflict of the piece on track.

Despite a cumbersome set, which seems to have more furniture than the Ethan Allen showroom, director Miriam Bazensky briskly moves the action toward its bitter conclusion. Robin Rouse gives the standout performance as Mattie. Her sharp barbs and bravura gestures intensify the comic aura of the production; her breakdown after the humiliating encounter with Derek constitutes the performance's emotional apex.

Playing at the Fells Point Corner Theater, Scorpions offers a grim but entertaining glimpse of the relationship beyond dysfunctional.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Some Very Nice Things at Copeland

Ken Greller's This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things is an intriguing wisp of a play. Yes, it's yet another dysfunctional-relationship drama, but it admirably transcends the limits of that currently overused genre. Brilliantly directed by Peter Davis, the production features an ensemble of actors who convincingly bring this quirky meditation on romance and power to life. Produced by the Theatrical Mining Company, the drama is a new entrant in this year's Baltimore Playwrights Festival.

Currently playing at Notre Dame College's Copeland Theater, the play focuses on two troubled romantic relationships :one straight (Nathan and Suze), one gay (Ben and Tim). In the brief space of an hour, the couples experience desire, breakup, regret, and apology. In the witty dialogue by Greller, the perplexed romantic partners bounce (sometimes literally from the walls) in sharp, quirky dialogue and absurdist speculation on issues of power. The moralizing conclusion to the jaunty play is a bit of a downer, but the play's puzzles, explosions of emotion, and bemused characters keep the drama humming. Accenting the surreal note of the evening's actions, a statue molded by Nathan (which periodically becomes alive) becomes the play's ultimate object of erotic desire.

The direction of the play by Peter Davis is as close to flawless as one comes in BPF creations. The entire cast has clearly mastered its characters. Every actor manages to convey both the pathos and the offbeat humor of his or her character. There are no flubbed lines, lighting miscues, or wooden performances to mar the production. In this classy ensemble performance, two actors stand out: Christopher Krysztofiak as the perplexed Nathan, whose ever-shifting relationship to his paramour Suze, his friend Ben, and his enigmatic statue gives the play its fluid continuity. Just as impressive is Jessica Ruth Baker, who performs the roles of mother, employer, and mysterious statue. Her cool, crisp performance as the boss in the scenes where she fires Nathan constitutes the play's dramatic highlight. Her balletic performance as the statue underscores the lyrical but surreal atmosphere of the entire drama.

In Davis's capable hands, the ensemble delivers a performance which seems as much a ballet as a play. Each gesture, movement, and glance is carefully choreographed for maximum effect. The varied lighting design by Charlie Danforth provides strong visual support to the precise direction.

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things is a play for adults, not for children. It gives the dysfunctional-relationship genre a quirky, absurdist twist that saves it from cliche. The vibrant work of the director and ensemble cast will remind you why live theater is so special, indeed sacred, after all.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Hammarskjold: The Philosopher's Tale

A new production in this summer's Baltimore Playwrights Festival, Ron McKinney's Hammarskjold is a psychological mystery embroidered by philosophical debates. Premiering at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theater, the drama pivots around the puzzling identity of several mental patients and a baffling bomb attack at the United Nations. By the end of the performance, the threads of these disparate mysteries have been neatly tied together amidst a more abstract dispute on the difficulty of separating appearance from reality.

Set in a New York psychiatric hospital, Hammarskjold focuses on several therapists treating two problematic patients. An aggressive psychologist, Dr. Madison O'Reilly explores the enigma of a patient who believes himself to be Dag Hammarskjold, the secretary-general of the United Nations who died in the Congo uprising in 1961. Adding to the mystery is the fact that the patient knows in extraordinary detail the life of Hammarskjold; this knowledge seems to have been acquired by more than extensive reading or chance. A far quieter, self-doubting psychologist, Dr. Robbie Hanson attempts to unravel the sources of the rage of his Congolese Patient, Mputa. As they treat their patients, both therapists face their own internal conflicts as they undergo analysis by their own supervisors. A senior officer of the hospital, Dr. James Schmetterling supervises the investigation of these mysterious cases and carries on a tormented relationship with girlfriend Charlie Merleau, a security officer investigating the unsolved UN attack.

Unsurprisingly, the author of the drama is a philosopher and university professor. As the play comes to an unexpected (and poetically satisfying) resolution of its various mysteries, McKinney engages in speculations concerning history, sexuality, professional ethics, reincarnation, providence, fate, and discernment of the truth through psychoanalysis. On occasion, these excursions are moralizing and wearying. One might learn more than any human being would wish to know about Hammarskjold's biography and Congolese politics. But the satirical humor of the dialogue and the curiosity concerning the outcome of these various puzzles prevent the drama from stalling.

Lynne Morton's austere direction of the play maintains its therapeutic and rather abstract atmosphere. The characters pursue their detective work, their conflicts, and their romantic interests as participants in a therapeutic session on which the audience eavesdrops. Only emotion and argument remain. The therapists and security guard cling to their ringside places; the enraged patients are frozen in the outer ring of the performance space. Ably assisting this stark rendition of the script is the minimalist set design by Carrie Fucile. A diaphanous set of wires enclose the stage as if the audience is viewing the imprisonment or masking of the mind during the play's debates and discoveries. The two patients vent their rage from a blank white distance. Only in the play's transcendent ending does the ecstatic Charlie break the emotional paralysis and the physical stasis in which the other characters are enclosed.

The quality of acting varies. Andrea Bush gives a bravura performance as the bisexual Charlie. From beginning to end, her presence, diction, and emotional verve dominate the stage. Bob Ahrens (the Hammarskjold patient) and Kevin Baker (Mputa) plumb the emotional depths of their anguished characters. Kerry Brady (Madison) captures the aggressive bounce of her character; the performances of Ron Decker (James) and Jeffrey Coleman (Robbie) seem more tentative.

With its complex action, speculative dialogue, and austere production, Hammarskjold provides a challenging exercise in philosophical drama.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Graduation Blues

A play is struggling to get out of Commencement, but the liberation has yet to take place.
Written by David Allyn, the drama is a new entry in this year's Baltimore Playwrights Festival.
Performed at the Vagabond Players, the play concerns the travails of Danni, a college senior on the verge of graduation---or is she? Blasting into her life for the commencement exercises are her (disinvited) father and her (equally unwanted) mother. To make matters more complicated, her father has brought along his much younger trophy fiancee, a lingerie model. Reciprocating, the mother has brought along her twenty-something policy advisor, who also doubles as her sometime lover.
The opening comical pop-ins and pop-outs quickly settle down into more serious business as Danni announces that she is not graduating, has dropped out of college, and has converted to Islam. Much of the rest of the play is devoted to rather wearying discussions of Danni's motives, the need to find a meaning in life, and the emptiness of conventional religion, especially for this family of secularized New York Jews. The script does not avoid the vapors of this sort of discussion and rarely rises above cliche in its more soul-searching moments.
Karin Crighton's direction crisply moves the cast around the set, which convincingly duplicates the standard dilapidated off-campus apartment of undergrads. This is truly ensemble acting, with each actor carefully reacting to others as well as delivering his or her own lines. Each actor is convincing in his or her role: Stacey Bonds as the frustrated Danni; Rodney Bonds as the aging businessman facing unemployment and decline of virility; Patricia Batyi-Benz as the mother who has turned neo-con politician; Alex Kafarakis as the handsome, slick political consultant. But the roles themselves remain stereotyped.
In the evening's two most refreshing performances, Lynn McCormick turns the tables on her character's stereotype of the dumb blond model by checking out of her once-glittering engagement and converting to the feminist cause. In a hyper-kinetic performance as Danni's roommate, Kelly Fuller spices up the action with her exotic commitment to the cause of "poly" liberation (those who want more than one partner) and her quirky asides at just the right moment of the play's lagging action.
The play's intriguing pentagon of characters at its center and its moments of witty monologue reveal Allyn's talents as a playwright. But the heart of this tale of adolescent rebellion and the bitter loneliness of late middle age still remains to be excavated.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

G&S do the Charleston

In the Young Victorian Theatre Company's production of Iolanthe, Gilbert and Sullivan's tale of fairyland meets the Jazz Age.
The operetta's gossamer plot concerns the problems deriving from the illict marriage between a fairy, Iolanthe (Madelyn Wanner) and a too human Lord Chancellor (Troy Clark). Their part-human, part-fairy son, Strephon (Jeffrey Williams) desires to marry Phyllis (Sara Kete Walston), a ward of the Lord Chancellor. Alas, the taboos of fairyland and the laws of parliament forbid the marriage. After a great deal of gauzy nonsense concerning fairy solidarity, parliamentary corruption, and the changing-of-the-guard, boy finally gets girl and the bevy of newly engaged fairies and peers can trot off to a honeymoon in Fairyland.
Under the artistic direction of James Harp, this Victorian tale is transplanted to the 1920s. The stylish Art Deco set, the flapper costumes, the hip flasks, the silent-film conventions, and the hints of the Charleston provide a charming frame for the evening. Walston makes a delightful Mary Pickford coquette and Alexis Tantau (Queen of the Fairies) makes a commanding vamp. But when the director alters the lyrics and book of W.S. Gilbert to include anachronistic 1920s slang, the production sags. The sag becomes a collapse when Harp inexplicably "updates" the material to make references to current politics. What do Obama, Arundel Mills, Robert de Niro, and the hapless John Edwards have to do with Iolanthe? What do they even have to do with the Roaring Twenties? Nothing. Such gimmicks only cheapen an otherwise professional production.
The musical end of the production provides higher values. Under Phillip Collister's direction, the impressive orchestra provides a clear and sensitive account of Arthur Sullivan's score. The different textures of the score (lyrics, patter songs, satires, pleas) are faithfully evoked by the well-disciplined ensemble. Wanner, Waltson, Tantau, and Williams bring fine voices and carefully sculpted interpretations to their respective characters.
The Young Vic's production of Iolanthe generates some charming fairy dust in its handsomely sung version of G&S, but its gratuitous gadgets indicate that Sullivan actually knew what he was doing when he wrote the original libretto.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Violent Bear It Away

Currently playing at the Copeland Theater at Notre Dame College, Susan Middaugh's Black Widows is a delicious black comedy concerning two widows with a taste for larceny, fraud, and murder. Directed by Barry Feinstein, the drama is the most recent entry in this year's Baltimore Playwrights Festival.
At the center of the play stands the unlikely couple of Vera and Gwen. An embittered refugee from Russia, Vera is the cynical landlady for whom the accumulation of wealth is the only conceivable goal in life. No moral rules apply if you can get away with it; ethical objections to crime are only the sentimental bleat of the world's losers. Against this Nietzschean virago stands the timid Gwen, one of the world's sentimentalists. Her passion to protect stray dogs is matched by her passion to protect stray homeless alcoholics who dot her neighborhood. Having successfully tapped Gwen's streak of greed, the irresistible Vera expertly maneuvers the docile Gwen into escalating acts of minor theft, insurance fraud, and finally murder of the homeless men whose insurance policies they have commandeered for themselves.
The vibrant performances of Ann Mainolfi (Vera) and Babs Dentz (Gwen) are the treasure of the evening. Vera's cynical treatment of humanity and of the hapless Gwen exudes an ecstatic joy as she mows down her victims physically or verbally. The occasional flashbacks to the annihilation of her family at the hand of the Nazis evoke the source of this cynicism. Mainolfi's ability to change from beaming charmer to threatening bully in the space of a second brings the destructive but beguiling character alive. In her haunting character of Gwen, Dentz provides the evening's most moving performance. At first the caricature of the deranged pet-lover, Dentz shows genuine affection for the homeless men the duo is attempting to con. Her anguish over the escalation of crime is powerfully conveyed. Her final confrontation scene with the imprisoned Vera shows Gwen at last freed from the domination of the manipulative Vera and free to enjoy such humane pursuits as dog shelters, waitressing, and just being kind to the down and out.
Complementing the expert performance of the lethal duo is Glenn Vitale's cagey performance as John McArdle, a homeless vet who maintains a proper suspicion of the gifts showered upon him by these two alleged church ladies. In one of the evening's more entertaining twists, McArdle actually begins to recover from what had seemed a fatal addiction to alcohol. His unwelcome longevity causes Vera to mow him down in a trumped-up car accident.
The strength of Barry Feinstein's direction lies in the strong performances and ensemble feel he has elicited from his talented cast. The piece's dark humor and sincere sentiment about human suffering are kept in good balance. Unfortunately, at the opening night performance at least, the technical glitches indicated that the production was not quite ready. The many lighting miscues, confused movements, and flubbed lines broke the flow of the performance. The set gave the play a rather inert look, but the recorded original score (trumpet by Joseph Conway and guitar by Charlie Sigler) used the instruments cherished by the two homeless characters and gently recalled their ambitions to become jazz musicians in earlier times---another humane touch in a dark comedy with a soul.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

After the Madness

Currently playing at the Strand, Afterthoughts is a probing meditation on the massacre of students by a deranged fellow student. Loosely based on the Virginia Tech killings in 2007, the play focuses on the recollection of the massacre by five survivors: three of whom have died and wander through the afterlife and two of whom are still tethered to the earth. Written and directed by emerging playwright Alec Lawson, the brief drama (running time of one hour) provides a vivid portrait of the effort to make sense of what is senseless.
The drama presents this recollection of horror on two levels. In center stage, a triangle of the deceased try to understand the killings and make sense of the gloomy afterlife they have awakened to. Two murder victims (Will, played by Dan Walker, and Alison, played by Sheila Toomb) confront the killer (James, played by Michael Geib), who committed suicide at the end of his spree. The dialogue here is uneven. The in-jokes about theater majors age quickly; the "wisdom of life" remarks are often moralizing; the speculation on the afterlife has a grade-B "Twilight Zone" quality. The performance of the trio of actors is oddly restrained; little of the shock of the massacre comes through. Still, the expert blocking of the actors gives an appropriate sleepwalking quality to a trio wandering on the border between life and eternity.
More convincing is the simpler duet of survivors (played by Cordelia Snow and Courtney Williams). Perched on a balcony, the two survivors recount at a distance the events, the personalities, and the time-line of the fateful day. Their sober testimony ultimately proves more moving than the rambling debates of the trio in purgatory.
Enhancing this portrait of inexplicable violence is the brilliant set and lighting design by Kendra Richard. The black-and-white sculptural set of tumbled platforms and splintered fragments freezes the violence of the massacre and provides a haunting platform for the survivors' tales. The effective lighting, especially of the two living survivors dangling from the balcony, underscores the dream-like quality of the drama. One of the aesthetic strengths of the Strand Theater is its complete reconstruction of performance space for each production. Richard's reconstruction for Afterthoughts is an extraordinary achievement.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Global Crunch Comes Home

At Fells Point Corner Theater, Kathleen Barber's In the Shadow of Lushan skillfully turns the political turmoil of globalization into the personal crisis of one woman. Jo-Jo Banaker (Peggy Dorsey) valiantly defends her family-owned company against the conniving efforts of Caz (Mark Scharf), director of a rival company, to take over Banaker's by financial manipulations.
The battle between Jo-Jo and Caz inflames the entire staff of the tottering company. Chic (Richard Peck), the genial foreman, worries about the future of a middle-aged man who knows only the informal mom-and-pop environment of Banaker's. Frannie (Peggy Friedman), the faithful employee, cringes at the low-paying, low-skills job that await her if the company folds. Bobby (Vic Cheswick, Jr.) blames the company's turmoil on job-stealing immigrants, too visibly represented by a new mysterious worker, the Mexican Mateo (Michael Zemarel). As the business confrontation between Jo-Jo and Caz defrosts into chapters of romance, stalemate, and mutual admiration, the relationship among the employees deteriorates into mutual suspicion and desperate scapegoating. The opening company fun, where employees mock Japanese business "shame circles," turns into an angry knife assault.
The solid cast successfully gives the turmoil of globalization a human face. Foreign competition, price wars, illegal immigration, aging industries, and "Bidding Olympics" flow off the stage as the words and gestures of the increasingly angry and exhausted workers. At the center of the meltdown, Peggy Dorsey ably presents the charm of a successful executive comfortable in working in an old-fashioned family mode but uncertain in the cutthroat politics of the new world market. Slipping abruptly from adversarial to romantic partner, Mark Scharf is a sharp, sandpaperish foil to Dorsey's more maternal persona. Vic Cheswick is especially strong as the charming Bobby, who quickly turns from fun and games to xenophobia and attempted murder.
Josh Bristol's direction of the piece is serviceable, but the multiple exits and entrances seem interchangeable. The actors are often frozen into awkward positions, as when George (E. Martin Early) speaks into the back of Jo-Jo. The movements in the sudden romance scene and the sudden knife attack seem stilted. The nondescript set conveys the gray, metallic nature of the factory (and of the gloomy world economy looming just beyond the door), but its drabness only accentuates the halting character of the player's movements.
Barber's play marks a promising beginning for this year's Baltimore Playwrights Festival. Global economic conflict becomes intimate family anguish.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Thin Satire

Will Eno's Tragedy; tragedy is a compact satire on American television news. But even at seventy minutes in running length, the play becomes one weary joke.
The comedy's news team must wrestle with an astonishing piece of non-news: The sun has set and it is night. The avuncular anchorman (coolly played by Rich Espey) attempts to tease some news out of his clueless news team. Constance (Jessica Garrett in an offbeat performance) tries to drum up some local interest in reaction to the news, but there is little more to report than shifting fog and rain. In an edgier performance, the earnest John (Nathan Cooper) manages to snag a man-in-the-street (Michael Salconi) whose reactions amount to one-minute negatives. An increasingly deranged Michael (played with manic energy by Nathan Fulton) reports the political blather of the governor, unable to cope with the encircling gloom. As the non-news event progresses, the psychic nights of each baffled commentator emerge through the non-sequiter prose. Old resentments about distant parents and childhood names scratch the vacant journo-babble. But the existential huffing-puffing cannot redeem the one-note satire.
Under J. Buck Jabailly's capable direction, Eno's sketch is given a polished production. Set in a series of life-size boxes, the various news personalities suffer visual as well as psychological isolation as night (and the absurdist reactions to night) envelop them. Each character moves from fumbling, vacuous reportage to anxious self-disclosure and desperation. Even the box isolation begins to break down as Michael, the most unhinged of the commentators, walks right into the audience to deliver his valedictory on the mysterious governor. But despite the occasional fury and Beckett echoes, the play cannot overcome its SNL-sketch limits.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Japanese Enchantment

Naoko Maeshiba's Paraffin is a kinetic wonder. Returning to Theatre Project this weekend, Maeshiba's performance troupe Kibism mesmerizes the viewer with one mysterious tableau after another. Employing mime, aerial movement, and muscular choreography, the various scenes evoke search, love, oppression, and death.
Three particularly haunting scenes remain in the memory. Wrapped in golden dresses and tissue-paper headdresses hiding the face, three women taunt three athletic men writhing in their dark suits. In a melancholic picnic pursued under the rain, three characters evoke the jealousies and shared memories of family life through the rhythmic movement of pot, bowls, and blanket. Evoking mechanical oppression, a troupe of white-uniformed technicians reduce a patient to a suffering object under the ballet of their probes and charts.
Far from narrative, the performance evokes the raw passions of fear and desire as the body is stretched to its physical and expressive limits. Presiding over the performance as a regal, expressive angel on a trapeze, Maeshiba develops a choreography remarkable for its energy and sculptural precision. Her movement is ably complemented by her electronic musical score and by Kel Millione's lighting design, which bathes the entire production in an ethereal golden light.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Cerebral Entertainment

One of the more offbeat theatrical offerings of the moment is Think Twice at Spotlighters. Directed by Rodney Bonds, the program is actually two one-act plays, Lecture with Cello by Robert Moulthrop and Sapiens! by Rich Espey. In each one-man play, a monologue explores the complexity behind some commonplace truths.
In Lecture with Cello a formally dressed musician gives a lecture on---you guessed it---a cello. The lesson gradually deteriorates into philosophical musings on the nature of truth and then into a furniture-throwing rant ignited by a lost passion. Employing the full gamut of emotions and gestures, Rodney Bonds astutely portrays the Chekhovian lecturer as he deteriorates before the audience's eyes and practically in the audience's lap. But running over an hour in length, the monologue's more metaphysical musings became tiring.
In Rich Espey's more accessible Sapiens! a young science teacher reacts in shock as some of his students challenge the theory of evolution. As the teacher seeks help from dialogues with other scientists, his wife, and memories from the past, the teacher slowly realizes that even many scientific "facts" rest on high probabilities and that certain truths about cosmic and human events might legitimately derive from religious or emotional premises. Like Bottom, Joshua Snowden winningly creates all the parts: Adam the teacher and all his imagined interlocutors. What began as a predictable tale of enlightened evolutionists vs. rabid creationists finally emerges as a cautionary tale on intellectual humility.
These two austere monologues are not standard summer fare but, directed and acted with incandescent passion, they are challenging, complementary explorations of the obscurity of truth, artistic or scientific.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Skin at the Strand

On Saturday evening at the Strand Theater, Playwrights Group of Baltimore presented "Skin in the Game," an anthology of short plays written by members of the Group. Different in style, each play pivots around the phrase "Skin in the Game," apparently coined by Warren Buffet to indicate passionate investment. A packed audience at the Strand witnessed staged readings of plays ranging from the melodramatic to the romantic to the fantasist.
Exploring the current recession, John Conley's "Leopard and Parcheesi" features a bankrupt middle-class couple facing exile in their run-down Poconos cabin. Alex Hewett and Rich Espey movingly portrayed the squabbling couple. Dwight Cook's "SIG Tea" presents two bickering gay friends discussing conquests and the perils of outing in a phone call. Richard Keller and Aaron Trent wittily depicted the sparring duo. In Peter Davis's "Undertow," a ruthless businessman (Kevin Griffin Moreno) unsuccessfully attempts to bulldoze his wife (Alex Hewett) and his professional assistant (Nancy Flores). Brent Englar's humorous "Plunge" celebrates an awkward triangle (Christopher Krysztofiak, Tiffany Mowry, Elizabeth Galuardi) trying to be part of the polar bear club: a group of hearty naturists who dive into the ocean in winter. In the enigmatic "Don't Be" by Ken Greller, two mismatched friends (Alex Scally and Richard Keller) struggle with a car that keeps getting smaller and a bag of other "issues." In LaRonika Thomas's piece of social realism, "J-ROTs," a group of African-American high school students (played with intensity by Mardee Bennett, Ayesis Clay, and Aaaron Trent) debate the controversial merits of dedicating their lives to military service.
Despite the diversity of genres, this anthology of plays indicates that realism and naturalism still remain the default button of American playwriting, even the most recent.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

From Wish to Prayer

Single Carrot Theatre's lythe production of Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Tamberlake) lights up the harrowing but oddly humorous script by Sheila Callaghan. The tale of yet another dysfunctional family adds an unusual twist by turning the apartment that has witnessed the family's trauma into its own character, The Apartment (Brendan Ragan). The surviving family triangle has more than its quota of quirks. Mother Clara (Genevieve de Mahy) is a gourmet chef whose detailed dinner and even breakfast menus would make the winners of Top Chef blush. Daughter Janice (Giti Jabaily) is an 11-year old lost soul who has broken down into her private world of doll games, word games, and growling incantations. In the evening's wittiest performance, Courtney Weber plays Aunt Clara, the forlorn aunt whose life is devoted to the care of her 57 cats and stilted "girl talk" with her deranged niece. Providing further quirks are guest appearances by celebrities Justin Timberlake and Harrison Ford (both played by Elliott Rauh).
The energetic direction of Aldo Pantoja gives the production its pulsing, choreographed feel. Ragan's Apartment swings from the single rope that dominates the playing area; he leaps on ledges as he narrates the history of various tenants he has had to accommodate. Rauh complements the choreography with his athletic leaps and braggadocio imitations of the celebrities. As the play moves toward Christmas, with Clara trying to fulfill the strange Christmas list desires of Janice, the "family secret" that has caused the trauma comes into view. The father of the clan had died the previous Christmas in an accident related to the ragged apartment's rotting floors and dangerous electrical wires. A bit too neatly, Janice suddenly turns from curses to prayer as she recalls her deceased father over the votive candle her mother has given her for Christmas; Clara suddenly loses her anxiety and starts to coach her daughter on some group projects; even the aloof Aunt Barbara tries to patch up things with family by offering to move into a new apartment with them.
The script is not without its sentimentalities (cleverly disguised by its jagged structure) and the moral at the conclusion (Trust yourself; reach out; take reversal in stride) has the depth of a Hallmark card. But the energetic direction, physical gusto, and disciplined ensemble playing give the production its moving moments circling the emotions of loss as well as its dark humorous ones rooted in a family of sympathetic grotesques.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Ye Olde Casting Couch

Vagabond Players is currently presenting David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow in a taut and dynamic production. A vitriolic attack on the ethics of Hollywood, the play is Mamet's twist on that old standby for Hollywood corruption: the casting couch. A rapacious producer Bobby Gould (played by Dave Gamble), egged on by his sycophantic assistant Charlie Fox (played by Michael Leicht), places a bet on Gould's success in seducing the office's new temp Karen (played by Beverly Shannon) within twenty-four hours. The clock is also ticking because a film deal Fox is urging Gould to seal the next day could turn Fox at last into a co-producer and a wealthy man. The absurd sex-and-violence script for the deal seems to guarantee its cinematic success. But as the seduction proceeds, the hunter becomes the hunted. The determined and oddly mystical Karen manipulates Gould into endorsing her own existentialist film project and turning the conspirators Gould and Fox into violent opponents. The usual Mamet smorgasbord of obscenities, humiliation games, and physical violence rounds out the pessimistic fun.
Two actors stand out in the cast. Michael Leicht projects Fox's desperation from beginning to end. His only goal is to close the deal and rise higher in the crumbling Hollywood hierarchy. There is no other life except servile ambition for this anxious climber. Beverly Shannon gives a remarkable performance as Karen. In the first scene, the nervous temp is bewildered by her new work and apparently shocked at the office's foul language. The dewey-eyed novice seems to have walked out of a neighboring corn field. In the second scene, the object of seduction suddenly becomes the seducer. Clad in a sophisticated red Chinese blouse and tight slacks, Karen assertively recommends seduction as part of an apocalyptic world of radiation scares, failing banks, and natural catastrophes. By the third scene, dressed tightly in a black outfit and crisply barking orders to the bedazzled Gould, Karen now seems to have walked out of the Marquis de Sade's Justine. Shannon's arc of transformation of her mysterious character is the dramatic highlight of the evening. Dave Gamble provides a solid performance as the odious Gould, but the range of emotional expression seems limited. In the opening scene, his cynicism does not appears as smarmy as it could. In the closing scene, his confusion and rage seem oddly restrained.
Steve Goldklang's direction carefully builds the emotional arc of the play to its violent conclusion, even if the humor of the piece seems muted. The stark, geometric set design by Roy Steinman handsomely reduces the play to its emotional basics: plots for future deals (expressed by swaths of raw material and color) and plots for seduction (expressed by a simple leather couch).

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Irish Bitters

Currently performed at the Strand Theater, Marina Carr's The Mai studies the deterioration of a rural Irish family over four generations. There are echoes of the old Irish melodramas of Synge and O'Casey in the poetic laments of Irish folk doomed by their histories. There is also a dose of Yeats, as the script attempts to mythologize the family's suffering into a neo-Greek tragedy, where personal suffering seems rooted in a a bitter cosmic fate. A contemporary Irish playwright, Carr adds a feminist note to the drama since it is very much the gender-specific suffering of women, tied to an ancient code of fidelity and forbearance, that constitutes the heart of the family collisions.
The play's eponymous heroine is the Mai (Amelia Adams), a stolid school principal who attempts to keep together her elegant house and her shattered marriage to a philandering husband against the forces of destruction. Perfectly costumed in a neoclassical tunic, the statuesque Adams gives the Mai the tragic poise which makes her the pivot of the suffering clan. The vacuous chatter and cello-playing of her adulterous husband Robert (Jonathan Sachsman) reveals that the Mai's efforts to maintain the appearance of marriage are as vain as they are noble. Her sisters Connie (Jessica Baker) and Beck (April Rejman) suffer similar romantic illusions from an impetuous marriage that has failed in a matter of months and from an all-too successful marriage that is nothing but convention. The Mai's child, Millie (Brenda Badger), who also acts as the play''s narrator, evokes the emotional damage that has already scarred the new generation emerging from the duplicitous marriage. Acting as the conscience of a dying Catholic Ireland, Aunt Julie (played with authority by Nancy Linden) and Aunt Agnes (Luci Poirier) lamely plead for the preservation of chastity and attempt to ward off divorce. In the evening's bravura performance, Natalia Chavez Leimkuhler plays the feisty Grandmother Fraochlan, whose personal mix of Catholicism, Gaelic paganism, and earthy sexual experience give her an exuberant defiance of adversity which the other family members lack. But her addiction to alcohol and opium, as well as the illusions of her own romantic tales, indicate that freedom and happiness are very restrained in this doomed, perfectly furnished house.
Director Jayme Kilburn has carefully cultivated the particular tragedy lurking in each character. The final ensemble scene is especially moving. There are some technical problems, however. Several of the actors speak too quickly to be heard. The effort of the ensemble to adopt appropriate Irish brogues is uneven.
Designed by the muralist David Cunningham, the set is a master piece. The chalk-like etchings of the Mai's elegant house exterior, interior rooms, and furniture, splashed over the walls and floor of the narrow playing space, evoke both the Mai's determined aspiration to a successful family and professional life and the fragile, fading nature of that doomed aspiration. Even before the lights dim, the Gaelic wheel of fortune is turning.

Friday, April 2, 2010

From Sound to Sight at Mobtown

Currently presenting two new plays, Mobtown Theater at Meadow Mill mixes a dramatic search for sound with an even more dramatic search for sight.

Jim Cary's An Ounce of Blues follows a white soldier (Jack) who finally locates an obscure black guitarist (Mr. Walter) whom the solider has long idolized. The encounter between the two in the deep rural South centers on the reluctant performance on the blues guitar by Mr. Walter, complemented by the sudden love of Jack for Mr. Walter's perky assistant (Regina). As Regina, Lauren Blackwell lights up the piece which, despite its consistent "journey of discovery" structure, suffers from an overabundance of stereotypes about the Old South.

The tour-de-force of the evening is Joe Denison's Karovice. In this one-character play, a despairing artist delivers a brilliant monologue, where alliterations, puns, incantations, curses, prayers, and shards of memory trace the artist's progressive isolation. Powerfully acted by Mark Squirek, the mesmerizing monologue is illustrated by the artist's painting on originally blank canvases to express his harrowing mood swings. Ably directed by John Garner, the acrobatic performance by Squirek and the simple, primitivist stamp of the emerging paintings give the play its visual elegance.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Lacy Project at Strand

The dynamic little theater on Charles Street, the Strand has devoted itself to the production of dramas by women and to the production of new and rarely staged works. In its current offering The Lacy Project by Alena Smith, it admirably fulfills both goals. The play reveals both the promise and limits of a young playwright only recently graduated from Yale's drama school. Focused on the hapless life of Lacy, a 22-year old woman closely tied to her dolls and to her mysterious photographer mother, the script explores various ways women are oppressed by their images: the unchanging doll, the MTV video harridan, the cute girl-in-the-red-ribbon who never quite grows up, the perpetual daughter, the bitter romantic rival to other women. When the play zeroes in on the conflict between Lacy, her hip-hop friend Giselle, and her suspiciously stolid roommate Charlotte, its feminist themes of oppression through gender stereotypes crackles. But when the dolls of Tracy come alive to perform their own battles over maternity and jealousy, the preachiness and the forced vulgarity become tiresome. There is nothing uneven in the production itself, tautly directed by Josh Bristol. The all-women ensemble of actors energetically pushes its characters to their self-destructive ends. Amelia Adams (Harriet) and Jen Anthony (Olivia) bring out the one-note vanity and sentimentality in their respective dolls-come-alive. As the unlikely lifelong friends, Lauren Lakis (Lacy) and Britt Olsen-Ecker (Giselle) accelerate their raw desperation as they plunge toward annihilation through sexual addiction, drug addiction, and gendered role-playing that destroys any unique self. In the evening's towering performance, Leah Raulerson (Charlotte) plays the reasonable, detached, hard-working roommate who gradually reveals herself as the most cunning manipulator of the lot. Her statuesque coolness amidst the desperation of the other characters gives the play's bitter conclusion its steely edge.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Carmen au cabaret

American Opera Theater's production of Carmen will not please purists. Now titled Le Cabaret de Carmen, Bizet's opera has been turned into a series of acts in a rough, smoky 1920s Parisian nightclub. But this sizzling production will intrigue just about everyone else. Glorious singing is provided by Adonis Abuyen (Escamillo), Bonnie Mc Naughton (Micaela), and especially Brian Arreola (Don Jose), whose brilliant tenor rendition of a desperate Don Jose provides the evening's most thrilling vocal moments. Playing Carmen as an overbearing yet vulnerable chanteuse, Sophie-Louise Roland looks and plays the seductress with energy and conviction, but her singing remained the most frayed of the performance. Under Timothy Nelson's direction, the story is completely revamped. The toreador becomes a stand-up comic, Carmen's husband suddenly appears, a cynical madam (Lydia Gladstone) bossily moves the stage business along the cabaret stage and the patrons sitting in a apron downstage. The simple orchestra of piano (Simone Lutti) and cello (Jill Collier) provides an intimate and often intense accompaniment to the singing. The direction effectively recreates the underworld of Paris 1920: smoke-filled cabaret, violent floor shows, stand-up comedians, silky soloists overemphasizing emotion, the overwrought gestures of silent cinema. But some of the gimmicks don't work. The host (Timothy Nelson) is a simple knock-off of the Joel Grey Emcee from Cabaret; a gay subplot comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere; the stage business of the madam becomes tiresome. The energetic production works best in the simpler moments toward the end, when Arreola and McNaugton treat us to some moving arias where the purity of musical tone matches the purity of the emotion expressed.