Friday, February 23, 2018

Fusiform Gyrus

photo: Suzanne Opton

The pre-show of Fusiform Gyrus consists of a grey-haired man at a desk, with his head lowered. There’s a black back wall, which turns out to be a scrim, with some scientific names for beasts written on it - thamnophis sirtalis, phengaris arion… Fusiform Gyrus, the program tells us, is “a region in the brain that lights up with activity during brain imaging when people describe, and give names to living things.”

At the show start, a second grey-haired man enters, and the two men, equally tall, laugh for no reason. It’s a fitting opening for Talking Band's good-natured, inscrutable production of this script by Ellen Maddow.

The company consist of the two actors and five musicians (trombone, tuba, trumpet and two saxophones). From time to time the brass band plays, merrily at first and cacophonously or whisperingly later in the show. Late in the show there are little lights round the bells of the instruments.

There’s no plot; these aren’t dramatic characters. They’re more like intellectual hallucinations. One is an “alpha taxonomist”, the other an entomologist who’s “decided to live his life inside a Russian novel.” They talk all the time, sometimes to one another, sometimes to us, and they watch a video of two people having a conversation in a breakfast nook. But the characters in the video can’t be heard, and the on-stage characters speak their words. They also sort of sing and dance a bit.

They don’t talk about anything in particular for very long. Sometimes they tell stories, and they talk about the woman who appears in the video. But the fact of their talking, their very conviviality, is more important that anything they might talk about. There’s a bit of dramatic action when Dr. Decker (the taxonomist) talks to us about Mr. Grey (the entomologist-turned-man-of-letters) and Mr. Grey storms off in a huff. “This is a moment without a name,” Dr. Decker says. But the rift doesn’t last long and Mr. Grey returns. They tell us the key (the key to what?) is in the bell of the slide trombone, but when Dr. Decker reaches into it he pulls out a flash drive.

This is very Carrollian nonsense, and it’s entertaining. But unlike the Alice stories, it’s opaque and abstruse. If it means anything, Ms. Maddow doesn’t let us in on the secret.

The show is buoyed up by the talents of its two actors, Tom Nelis and Paul Zimet, who animate this dramatic void with unflagging emotional and physical life. They’re matching wits, recognizable as the smart academics we’ve all known. Ellie Heyman’s direction keeps everything moving along allegretto and precisely controlled. 

In its stasis, its disdain of narrative, its loopy characters, Fusiform Gyrus is influenced by - not to say imitative of - the work of Richard Foreman. Even the band reminds us of the prancing gnomes and musical loops that some of his work had. However, it fails to leave us with the inexplicably refreshed feeling Mr. Foreman’s work has. He called his own work “a complex and dazzling object observable under glass”. Fusiform Gyrus fails to dazzle, partly because it’s not particularly complex. Ms. Maddow, like all of us, hasn’t guessed Mr. Foreman’s secret.

Fusiform Gyrus runs only about 70 minutes, and its brevity is part of its wit; we couldn’t handle any more. “Our brains are unreliable,” Mr. Grey has told us, so perhaps it’s best not to try to understand the play’s mysteries.

Steve Capra
February 2018

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Prelude to the Apocalypse

Prelude to the Apocalypse is an hour-long solo show written and performed by Blake Sugarman and presented by La MaMa. Mr Sugarman talks to us about the environmental crisis, and for the first half-hour or so, he remains seated behind a desk, speaking (and this is ill-advised) into a microphone. There’s an hourglass on the desk, and its live image is projected on the back wall. There’s a large, handsome pile of trash bags upstage as well.

“Once upon a time on a planet called Earth…” he opens, and proceeds to discuss the extinction of the dinosaurs, Jesus and Peter Pan, children at Dachau, mountain top removal and other issues that relate loosely, often poetically, to his subject. 

About halfway through the show he tells us that President Trump cited climate change in a request for legal permission to build a sea wall at his golf course in Ireland (!). The thought makes Mr. Sugarman jump to his feet and yell “What is going on?” It’s a genuine dramatic climax. Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man plays while Mr. Sugarman (who is indeed a thin young man) sort of taps and sort of runs around the stage and - in the show’s best moment - hides briefly behind the desk.

For nearly the rest of the show he’s in the audience. “Penny for your thoughts” he says, and successfully elicits comments from the us.

Finally, as a sort of coda, our monologist looks to the future. He tells us a Buddhist joke about a farmer whose horse is stolen. When a neighbor comments on what a misfortune that is, the farmer replies “We’ll see.” With rather more conviction, Mr. Sugarman talks about “changing the culture and building a movement” and tells us “It’s up to us to figure it out.”

The script is clever and enjoyable but it lacks a unifying metaphor. The show succeeds through Mr. Sugarman’s youthful - he’s about 26 - charm. This is why he’s most appealing when he’s in the audience talking to us. We can’t help liking him, and liking the performer is what a solo show is all about. 

The show is very well directed by Jacob Sexton, who ensures that is has variety. He’s wisely chosen to remain hidden and to let Mr. Sugarman have his way. 

Still, charm only gets Mr. Sugarman so far. His callow youth is both his strength and his limitation. He’s simply too young to deliver lines like “It’s important to be present but we must also be wise,” believably.

Prelude to the Apocalypse is agreeable if unimportant. I’m sure that Blake Sugarman will develop into a first-rate monologuist when he writes pithier material more appropriate for himself.

Steve Capra

February 2018

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Or Current Resident

photo by Jonathan Slaff

Naturalism isn’t my favorite style, but with theaters trying to outdo each other to be avant-garde, it’s refreshing to find a conventional, naturalistic production of a new script. I speak of Squeaky Bicycle Productions’ production of Or Current Resident, by Joan Bigwood, presented at The Theater for the New City. It’s squarely in the tradition of the American drama’s theme of family. From Eugene O’Neill, through Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, to Sam Shepard, American playwrights have been obsessed with family.

And naturalism this is, with a set with walls, presenting the common room - a combination living room and kitchen - of a lower middle class home, very nicely designed by Meg McGuin. 

The family in this play is the Finch’s. Mimi, the grandmother, lives with her two daughters and twin grandchildren in “a small and crowded space”. Her son, Ted, comes to live with them after a lengthy prison term. Granddad’s interred in the back yard, present but absent. 

The plot, such a it is, concerns Ted’s re-assimilation into the family, the daughter’s online search for romance, and the girl twin’s obsession with an off-stage boy. In fact, the playwright has learned from Chekhov (particularly from Three Sisters) to give the play multiple plots. The threatened eviction of the family from the home isn’t exactly a plot element; it’s more of a given circumstance. “What do I always say? We are Finch’s and Finch’s adapt,” Mimi says.

What’s most striking about the script is Ms. Bigwood’s naturalistic dialogue. She’s very skilled at delayed exposition. For the first half of the show, we spend nearly all our concentration extracting information from the dialogue. Indeed, we don’t learn everything we need to know about the family until the end of the play.

What’s more, the playwright imbeds the most significant lines in the conversation with marvelous subtlety. “We can’t decide our own fate. Fate will do it for us,” Mimi says, and Lydia Gladstone delivers the line so naturally that it doesn’t seem intrusive or pretentious.

Ms. Bigwood also touches on another typically American theme, the use of lies to make life tolerable. Ted makes the mistake of telling the twins a family secret and throws them into turmoil. “Is it called a lie when it’s meant to do good?” he says in response to their resentment.

Most of the cast gives us very good work here, particularly Lydia Gladstone in the role of Mimi. “Good Morning, morning glory,” she chirps with forced cheerfulness, the personification of motherhood. Michael Vitaly Sazonov is also outstanding as Ted; he plays the felon with sensitivity and reserve. Curry Whitmire as the boy twin, Krystle N. Adams as his mother and Bettina Goolsby as his aunt also do well. The young actress playing the female twin, unfortunately, is allowed to overdo the hostility and petulance.

Brandi Varnell’s direction is smooth and subtle, seemingly effortless. Her busy blocking has the family jostling around in their cramped apartment. She never dwells and never rushes, and she’s very ably led her cast as an ensemble.

However, there are some problems with the production. First of all, the actors playing the twins are too old to play 16-year-olds. They scarcely look ten years younger than their mother. When the boy reaches manhood - he delivers the last line of the play, “I promise you, I’m on this” - we’re not impressed because we’ve always thought of him as a man. The problem makes it particularly difficult to identify who the people are in this family, on top of the challenge posed by Ms. Bigwood’s dialogue. That this is a common problem - finding actors who can play teenagers - makes it no less annoying.

And some of the actors rush their lines, speaking without deliberacy, swallowing their vowels and gliding over the consonants. They’ve neglected to balance the needs of naturalism with the needs of the listener. The younger actors would do well to take a lesson from their elder, Ms. Gladstone, whose delivery is simultaneously spontaneous and studied.

Ms.Bigwood has peppered the dialogue with humor that saves it from melodrama. Nonetheless, all this unhappiness gets rather oppressive toward the end, what with the neurotic personalities and the vicissitudes of fate. And she gets bogged down in her dialogue in some passages, neglecting dramatic action.

Nonetheless, Squeaky Bicycle has given us a very fine show in Or Current Resident, understated and complex. Good work!

Steve Capra
February 2018

Friday, February 2, 2018

Delta in the Sky with Diamonds

photo: Carol Rosegg

A play by June Daniel White called Delta in the Sky with Diamonds or Maybe Not is playing at Theatre 54 at Shetler Studios, produced Off-off-Broadway by Boogla Nights Productions. It concerns a woman, Delta, recently deceased, who meets God and finds that for some inexplicable reason he has a plan to use her to save the world. It seems that she must get Lyle, a living former rock star, and Hollywood, a living waitress, together as partners. The future of the world depends on it. It’s not clear why this should be the case.

At any rate, Delta and God show up at Hollywood’s diner in Wabash, Indiana, with Lyle and Hollywood. It’s neat that they talk to one another but can’t be seen or heard by the living for a while. Then, to Hollywood’s bewilderment, Delta appears in the living world with her and Lyle.

There’s a second concern in the script: Delta’s boyfriend, whom she left standing at the church on their wedding day. She works to convince God to let her go back to Earth to deal with him. He lets her go, but only after saying “Sending you back is complicated.” This God is spineless, barely an authority. In fact, he doesn’t seem to realize that he’s already sent her back, to Wabash.

Trivializing God is a staple of bad plays. Just make him human and petty (and in this play, God actually says “I’m God. I’m just human.”), and that’s apparently considered enough of a device to pass for comedy. In this play God is weak, easily manipulated, and not even funny. “I don’t know what’s happening in my world,” he says. And we don’t care what’s happening in this play because the script doesn’t make us care. The writing is sketchy; it glosses over dramatic action. There’s no dramatic tension. Worse, it gets sentimental when Delta shows up at her ex-boyfriend’s diner and dances with him.

The playwright herself plays Delta. This piece of casting by itself should be a red flag. She hesitates when she starts to speak, and repeats words, and stammers so much, that she seems repeatedly to forget her lines, which isn’t likely to be the case. The problem seems to be a misbegotten acting technique. We don’t for a moment believe this tacky character, and we don’t care what happens to her. Only once, when she recounts a ridiculous childhood trauma, oddly enough, is Ms. White believable. Delta has also been raped, but neither the character nor the playwright cares much about it. 

God is played by the formidable and accomplished Austin Pendleton. It’s a mystery why he agreed to take on the role. His physical life is marvelous. He gesticulates and runs his hands through his hair and claps. In another actor this sort of abandon would be false and embarrassing, but Mr. Pendleton so adept, and his physicalization is so emotionally grounded, that it’s fascinating. He does not, however, convince us that his God has any need to meet. His dumb lines fall flat, as when he says that Mother Theresa isn’t in heaven because “she refuses to take the dishtowel off her head.” Ugh. No actor could save this play. 

The supporting cast is serviceable, but only Bob D’Heane, as the aging rock star, is notable.

The show’s director, Michael Padden, does the best he can considering the material. He keeps everything moving along at a nice clip, and he’s made the inspired choice of having Mr. Pendleton sit in the audience at times and watch the action on stage. He’s staged in the round; it makes for a nice intimacy, but doesn’t salvage the play.

I saw Delta in the Sky with Diamonds on the second evening of previews. Perhaps the following night, when it opened, Mr. Padden and Ms. White made some miraculous adjustments.

Steve Capra

January, 2018

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Unexploded Ordnances

Photo by Theo Cote

The set for Unexploded Ordnances (produced by Split Britches at La MaMa) consists of seven tables arranged in a circle and three large video screens on the back wall. Several minutes into the show, one of the two actresses, Lois Weaver (who also directs), asks who in the audience was alive during World War II. The ten individuals who respond spend the rest of the show sitting at the tables with her as a sort of Council of Elders. It’s really cool. 

Ms. Weaver represents the President - no particular president. The second actress, Peggy Shaw, spends nearly all her time downstage right at a desk with a computer. She represents the General - no particular general.

The play’s concern is nuclear annihilation and it unabashedly borrows from the movie Dr. Strangelove. But in that movie the president and the general were specific fictional characters. In this play they’re archetypes, like the figures in Genet’s play The Balcony. Film can’t do this.

There’s not much structure to the play. Ms. Shaw does a nice, silly bit in which she sort of sings “I’m a 60-minute man - Lovin’ Dan” (the General is a man). Ms. Weaver rolls from one empty tabletop to another giving a neat, mysterious monologue. The “elders” are asked what their main worry is and they’re also directed to to read material the audience has wrote before the show. We were asked to name one thing we want to do in life and they read out our wishes as our representatives.

Almost at the top of the show, a secretary (it’s a tiny role; Mss. Weaver and Shaw are really the cast) answers a phone call and tells the General that US planes are headed for Germany or North Korea “or some place like that”. And the real substance of the play is found near the end when the President calls the General to tell him that his country is going to be bombed. This point is unclear since the General began as American and has apparently morphed into someone else. Perhaps the writers (Ms. Weaver, Ms. Shaw and Hannah Maxwell) are indicating that Ms. Shaw is playing a sort of universal general, but this is a fault in the concept.

At any rate, we hear the President’s side of the conversation, and it’s based on Peter Seller’s marvelous conversation as President Muffley with Premier Kissov in Dr. Strangelove. Much of it is slightly rephrased, but there’s no altering the climactic line “Why do you think I’m calling you? Just to say Hello?”

The whole thing is just great. Mss. Weaver and Shaw are only loosely in character - at times, Ms. Weaver calls Ms. Shaw “Peggy”. The stage image is haunting, with the spooky blue light from the video screens and the glaring white tabletops.

The script’s most interesting technique concerns the audience’s iPhones. At the beginning of the show, we’re asked to set our phones to go off in 59 minutes. And nearly an hour later - when we’ve forgotten about the instruction - our phones do indeed go off in unison.

The show more or less ends with the final minutes of Dr. Strangelove on the video screens (I assume it’s the real footage): the nuclear explosion. But Unexploded Ordnances doesn’t have the intense black humor of that movie; it has more of a whimsy. 

Anyway, it’s terrific! I’ll certainly be at Split Britches’ next show!

Steve Capra
January 2018

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Undesirable Elements: Generation NYZ

There are seven performers in Ping Chong and Company’s play Undesirable Elements: Generation NYZ They talk about their actual lives - what’s happened in the past - in the present tense, and what they talk about is the substance of growing up disadvantaged in New York City. When one is asked “What would you tell your younger self?” the reply is “Be patient.” And when another is asked “What would you say to other kids like you?” the answer is “You were put here for a reason.” What an enormous encouragement it must be to young people, to hear that from these articulate performers - aged 18 to 22 - whom we grow to like so quickly!

The performers - four actresses and three actors - tell us their stories both individually and communally - that is, they rotate among themselves speaking bits of their narratives, but it’s all in chronological order. We experience them growing up together although they grew up separately. It’s like hearing from a generation.
Some are ethnic minority, some gender minority; all have been out of suits with fortune.

The script is written by Sara Katz and Kirya Traber. They’ve chosen significant details from the seven first person narratives and woven them together. The marvelous result is a sort of tapestry in seven colors, intimate but never intrusive. “Are you a boy or are you a girl?” one of them is asked. Later, another groans “We’re moving again,” speaking of his family.

As always in auto-biographical narratives, the best moments are the ones with irony, when the speakers comment in tone on what they’re saying in words. In fact, there are moments when the cast speaks in unison phrases like “strong Puerto-Rican woman” and “without papers”.

These raconteurs speak for all of us. “I start feeling really bad and I can’t understand why,” one man tells us. When he speaks about his depression at his high school, another student tells him “I feel that way too.”

Happily, each of our friends overcomes adversity reaches hope - if not yet fulfillment - via a different avenue. One joins the FBI, another works in the theater. “I spent too much time being unhappy. Now I want to pursue happiness,” a woman tells us.

I’m not sure The New Victory Theater is the best venue for the show. It’s more suited for a more intimate setting, or a setting - like a school auditorium - that’s not special, not separated from teens’ daily lives. The audience at the performance I attended were well beyond their teen years. But Undesirable Elements is unpretentious, vital theater.

Steve Capra
January 2018


Photo by Paul Gillis

What we do without smart clown shows? “Smart clown show” describes Happenstance Theater’s show Brouhaha, appearing Off-off-Broadway at The Theater for the New City. The loose premise is that the six characters expect the world to end imminently (the script doesn’t explain why and we don’t care). There are a couple of off-stage sort-of explosions that throw them on the floor, and then this brief exchange: 
“Was that it?”
“Apparently not.” 

And then they resume gayly throwing themselves at life. They dance (it’s lovely with their accordion and their umbrella) and play a game tossing their hats around and jockey for position in lines for nothing at all. Even better, they talk to us. “Hello. This is a safe place,” is the first line. “Ladies and gentlemen, the world is ending tonight,” they announce later without a trace of regret. The line “Imagine the bombs exploding outside are far away,” gives the script’s only real suggestion of given circumstances.

The house lights are on and we’re often a part of the show as we sit there. “If you’re here, raise your hand,” they tell us, although they obviously can see us perfectly well. We talk about what we’d like for our last meal and the characters are giddy with approval. “In the end we are all alone,” they sing, and we all sing along on the riff “all alone”, although we’re not alone at all. Finally they move on, not having been annihilated at all, presumably to another safe place.

Hardly more than an hour long, Brouhaha is a slight piece, and it’s delightful. We quickly grow to like these characters. Each is individuated. Part of the fun is in Sabrina Mandell’s whimsical costumes of no particular period. And one actor has a red nose, just enough to indicate a clown show.

The cast is composed of: Gwen Grastorf; Karen Hansen; Mark Jaster; Sabrina Mandell; Sarah Olmsted Thomas; Alex Vernon. Each of them exhibits a specific moment-to-moment life. There’s never a moment when they haven’t decided what they’re doing.

Brouhaha is very influenced by Waiting for Godot. Of course, it doesn’t approach the Beckett play in terms of content. Its premise - the end of the world - doesn’t inform every moment of the play; it’s merely stated, not extended. But many productions of Godot would benefit from this company’s masterful technique.

Steve Capra
January 2018