Monday, January 14, 2019

The Mortality Machine

photo by Zach Filkoff

The Morality Machine is an immersive theater experience produced by Sinking Ship Creations in association with Acronym Presents and Wildrence at the space Wildrence near Canal Street. It’s an example of live-action role-play (LARP), a theatrical experience in which the audience participants fully. It’s very influenced by escape rooms and installations like Sleep No More, and it echoes what we called in the 1980’s “audience-activated theater”. There’s hardly any set text in the script, but Ryan Hart is credited for “Written Narrative”, and as far as I can see he’s the Prime Mover.

The premise is this: five years ago, five people died in a medical experiment at the site. Now the families and friends have assembled there to unseal the laboratory and explore the last days of the victims. We the audience are recruited to play the attendees, each of us assigned a character (I participated as the father of a young woman). We’re led into the small, cluttered lab/office where we find lockers, notes, photos, videos and an extremely strange machine with a bed in it, sort of like a rudimentary MRI scanner.

At first the production seems to be merely a sort of immersive Grand-Guignol, but it develops into something more rewarding. Several of my fellow participants in our group of 20 (20 people each night) were familiar with this sort of high concept installation - some were experienced with escape rooms. As a group we searched, watched, drew conclusions, found a couple of hidden keys - and finally someone got into the machine. To tell you more would be spoil this rewarding, and fun, experience.

It’s important that people understand the type of event this is before they attend. It’s a bellwether for 21st-century theater to come, theater that builds on the form’s greatest strength: the physical presence of the participants in the space.

The concept is terrific, and it’s meticulously executed. We hope that the company’s market will grow to include people less educated to the avant-garde. The company has told me that they’re prepared for participant groups less active than mine, but I’d nonetheless like to have seen more preparation and imposed structure. What’s more, there are alternative endings, and I found ours less satisfactory than the ones explained to me.

But The Morality Machine is brilliant. Congratulations to all involved!

Steve Capra
January 2019

Wednesday, December 26, 2018


The Fringe Encores Series brought shows from seven English-language fringe festivals this year and presented them at the Soho Playhouse here in New York. One was a two-man production of an play called Beowulf from the Limerick Festival. Sam Gibbs and Peter Buffery call comprise Autojeu Theater, and they come from London. The act is a riff on the Old English poem.

Beowulf is the sort of enjoyable, inconsequential theater we expect from fringe theater. It clocks in at a little over an hour, and it’s nearly a monologue by Mr. Gibbs. Mr. Buffery play the keys on stage; he never speaks, but he has an onstage life when called upon, and part of the fun is seeing Mr. Gibbs relate to him occasionally. He sings a couple of nice songs in an appealing voice, and provides us with all sort of nice, silly sounds.

Mr. Gibbs, a bearded, burly guy, plays 14 roles, primarily a macho, blustering Beowulf. “I am Beowulf’ he bellows several times. His bombast, of course, is constantly trivialized, and therein lies much of the joke. Is his name pronounced Bay-o-wulf or Bee-o-wulf? There’s a sailor, a recurrent role, constantly seasick. Beowulf himself is undercut; 50 years have passed since he slew Grendel and his mother, and he’s expected to slay yet another dragon, poor, reluctant guy. After all, even at the beginning of the play, a raconteur told us that the match was “pensioner vs beast”.

The whole thing is influenced by Monty Python. Mr. Gibbs is at his best in the presto exchanges between two characters, pivoting from left to right as the speaker changes.

These are talented performers, without question, but Mr. Gibbs tries too hard to be funny throughout the show, like a stand-up. Autojeu needs better material. The script makes the story unclear, although he can speak to us however he likes.
This sort of send-up needs to take itself seriously from time to time and anchor itself in the source material: 
“Lo! the Spear-Danes’ glory through splendid achievements
The folk-kings’ former fame we have heard of,
How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.” 

But no matter. Let ’s hope The Best of the Fringe keeps collecting this oddities and letting us take a look at them.

Steve Capra

December 2018

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Waiting for Godot

photo by Matthew Thompson

Waiting for Godot is flatly the  most important play of the 20th century (the reader will remember that the comparable monuments of modern drama were written at the end of the 19th century). Samuel Beckett’s extended metaphor, often thought abstruse, has been more victimized by wayward criticism than any other modern drama. However, Edward Albee said to me when we discussed it: “If Waiting for Godot had been set in a living room, nobody would have had any trouble with it. It's this fucking blasted heath that got in everybody's way. They see a strange setting, they see something that is not naturalistic, automatically the warning flags go up. They say ‘I'm not going to be able to understand this.’ And therefore, they can't understand it, because they're determined they're not going to.” But more about the setting later.

Indeed, Waiting for Godot is the only play I know in which the characters tell us their motivation so explicitly: “It’s so we won’t think. … It’s so we won’t hear. … All the dead voices.” That’s why they talk so desperately.

Druid (from Galway, Ireland) has just produced the play as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival. This brilliant production is true in nearly every way to Beckett’s intent. The director, Garry Hynes, stresses the silences in the script, creating a particular minimalism that elucidates each small piece of dramatic action. After all, things do happen in the play, but small things. Leaves appear on the tree, but only three. People do come and go, but only two. Every dramatic impulse that occurs to our anti-heroes, Didi and Gogo - and every moment between those impulses - is examined meticulously. Each beat is crisp, each thought is isolated.

The critic Martin Esslin coined the phrase the theatre of the absurd in his book of that name. He wrote that a new style of acting was needed for the new style of drama. And that’s just what Ms. Hynes has directed her actors to give us. Aaron Monaghan as Estragon (called Didi) and Marty Rea as Vladimir (called Gogo) behave like cartoon characters, without inner life, isolating each dramatic beat to make it a frame in a comic book. They have one thought at a time. Their performances are flawless.

Ms. Hynes’ gives us a lot of laughs without ever working for them. They’re organic to the universe these characters live in. Everything’s physicalized, as when Didi helps Gogo put on his boots and Gogo executes a 180 degree turn, simultaneously awkward and graceful, or when they look offstage in silly sort-of-fencing-thrust poses, their hands shielding their eyes from the sun that’s in fact not very bright at all.

These smaller-than-life comrades march or traipse or wander around the stage, often arm-in-arm, arguing, comforting each other, slugging their way through conversations to make it through the day together.

Garrett Lombard, playing Lucky, and Rory Nolan, playing Pozzo, are likewise perfect in this acting idiom, commanding, funny, bizarre, ranting or slobbering as the occasion demands.

The set gives us the single tree that Beckett demands, as well as a single rock. But designer Francis O’Connor has inexplicably backed the stage with marble-looking wall that extends into the wings and up to the fly loft. This is the only liberty the production takes - Beckett tells us that he wants “an open space.” Didi and Gogo look trapped instead of lost, and we lose the sense of existential void.

The soft Irish diction of Didi and Gogo creates a distancing effect for New York audiences, and it’s great. What a marvelous production this Waiting for Godot is! What brilliant work from Druid!

Steve Capra
November 2018

Sunday, November 11, 2018


photo: Robert Catto

Swansong is an 80-minute monologue by Conor McDermottroe presented by L. Wolf Productions as part of the United Solo Theatre Festival. It’s a study of a criminal - a punk from the word go - presented with such insight that we leave the theater simultaneously appalled by the character and sympathetic to him. This is what it means to hold the mirror up to nature, non-judgmental and charitable.

Occi, as he is called, tells us about his life, starting with his habit of robbing the rich boys as a young hooligan. In the forefront of his bio is his mother, an alcoholic. “It wasn’t my fault she went back on it,” he tells us in one of the many glimpses we get of his inner life. We learn about his assaulting a civil servant and his ensuant psychiatric hospitalization, during which he was “awfully worried about Mammy.” After her death, Occi tells us “She’s with me all the time, in my sleep and all.” He takes work on a fishing trawler, on which he assaults his best mate for calling him an ugly name: “The whole world knows not to call me that,” he says.

Occi’s mother and the epithet he hates so much are central to the play, leaving him in a constant state of psychological crisis. And Mr. McDermottroe explores the depths of his spiritual poverty. In a chilling moment he tells us “I was havin’ awful dreams - worse than nightmares.”

The role is performed by Andre de Vanny as directed by Greg Carroll, and between the two of them they create a solo show of monumental emotional depth. With deft facility and expressiveness, Mr. de Vanny flows through a broad range of emotions:  shame, sadness, slyness, happiness… 

And above all, anger. Occi’s anger is never below the surface for long. Mr. de Vanny is a slight man and when Occi’s anger surfaces he yells in such a booming voice that we can see that his anger is larger than he is. The actor is emotionally grounded in every moment of his performance. Still, there are ways to express anger besides yelling, and for all his range of emotion, he never seethes.

Late in the show Occi says “Help me someone! Help me!”, the director/actor team have the sense to underplay it, to great effect. They reserve the yelling for anger.

There are a few problems. Mr. de Vanny’s Irish dialect gets in the way when he rushes his lines. More importantly, Mr. Carroll inexplicably has his actor spend much of his time far downstage on this small black box theater, only a couple of feet from the front row, and we feel that he’s going to jump on us. And some indication indication of place as a set - Occi is feeding the swans in a park - would have been appreciated.

But no matter. Swansong is great, a testament to the potential of solo shows.

Steve Capra

November, 2018

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Resistable Rise of JR Brinkley

photo by Untitled Theater Company No. 61

JR Brinkley was a Kansas doctor - faux doctor, actually - in the 1920’s who gained fame with a cure for erectile dysfunction: implanting goat testicles in his patients. He was so celebrated that he ran for governor and won the popular vote, but his opponent won the election on a technicality, praise God (votes misspelling his name were discarded). He was ultimately exposed, discredited and convicted of the obvious crimes. An American success story indeed.

Edward Einhorn has based his play The Resistable Rise of JR Brinkley on this unlikely biography, and it’s been produced by The Untitled Theater Company No. 61 as part of FringeNYC. It’s a terrific production. Mr. Einhorn, who himself directs, employs a cast of five actors/musicians on a nearly bare stage with a backdrop. Included in the show are country songs - real country songs, bluegrass maybe - that Mr. Einhorn has revised from authentic tunes with new lyrics, making the show a ballad opera. Songs go through lifecycles and he’s extending the lives of these songs by adapting them.

The style is pure Brecht, as the title suggests. Indeed, Mr. Einhorn knows Brecht so well that that his techniques read like a living catalogue of The Berliner Ensemble: doubling the casting; songs; addressing the audience; changing costumes onstage; a facetious happy ending. And of course politics: Mr. Trump is never mentioned in the play - Mr. Einhorn is not crass - but the Narrator tells us “It’s no secret what it’s about.” In a campaign speech, Brinkley says “They’re trying to steal this election from me,” and “I’m very smart, believe me.” Commenting on the candidate’s xenophobic, populist rhetoric, one character says “Either they believe it or they just like someone who says it.”

It’s all impeccably executed. The acting is great, led by Trav SD as Brinkley. The actors work with varying degrees of parody. Mr. Einhorn has directed his gentlemen to act with reserve, and he’s probably wise not to let them run away with the play. But even when Brinkley is stumping, Trav SD is not allowed to let fly with lampoon, and we would like to see him have more fun with the role. He’s a vaudevillian; he knows how.

Great work from Mr. Einhorn and his company. More Brechtianism, please!

To attend a show at FringeNYC (The New York International Fringe Festival), the audience needs to meet at FringeHUB, which is a vacant lot in Greenwich Village, and walk to the venue led by staff. If you don’t want to wait in the cold, or if you can’t keep up with the group - c’est dommage!

Steve Capra
October 2018

Ruffles, or a Progression of Rakes

photo by Mike Cantarella

The theater of the absurd is alive and well, thank you. I don’t use the term in the loose sense, as applied randomly to nearly everything written after World War Two that’s not realism. I use it in the strict sense, le théâtre de dérision, in which nonsense is baked into the form of the play as a philosophy.

I’m speaking of Normandy Sherwood’s play Ruffles, or a Progression of Rakes, recently produced by and at The Tank. The substance of this terrific play, such as it is, concerns a vaguely 18th-century dandy (Florian, played by Ean Sheehy) who scoops up a stable boy and makes him a sort of servant-cum-psychoslave. The young person (played by Bear Speigel) is made to wear ruffles around his neck - hence his new name.

Sometimes the script sounds like Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, and there’s an allusion to Genet’s The Maids when Florian has Ruffles engage in some role-playing with a row of silent maid-servants watching. The period is inconsistent - there are 20th-century allusions to plastic bags, phone numbers and roller coasters. And it’s never at all clear what’s going on in the plot. Yet at moments we get the impression that the idiot who wrote the script is smarter than we are. Ms. Normandy has Ruffles say things like “Am I finally able to hear the still voices of the world?” And in response to Ruffles’ song, a gentleman says “It’s almost as if he’s singing words that mean something.” Indeed, that’s how the whole play seems. Great!

But Florian, the antagonist, the libertine who corrupts Ruffles, has the best lines. “When I was a kid my parents made me sleep on the floor. I think it had a bad effect on me,” he tells us by way of introduction, and Ms. Sherwood summarily dismisses determinism. When he tells us “People enjoy my personality… even if it flies in the face of their so-called moral values,” we agree: much of the production’s success is owed to Ean Sheehy’s deft performance. He makes a complex, poetic line like “in the event my enemies sneak in under the cloak and cover of night” sound like an ad-lib.

Bear Speigel is less commanding as the androgynous Ruffles, but they (the performer) make a philosophical line like “What you think of as your thoughts are not your thoughts. they’re just thoughts” sound organic and spontaneous. Ruffles seems disappointed by his own enlightenment; he learns that when maid-servants are alone they talk about how to clean things.

The playwright herself directs, and she’s instructed her actors to speak allegro con brio, to great effect. The show whizzes by us and leaves us wondering what we’ve just seen. It runs just over a half-hour, and ends when Ruffles breaks off a speech in confusion, saying “I seem to have lost the thread.” Wonderful! Ruffles is that rare sort of play - one that we want more of.

Steve Capra

October 2018

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Hysteria of Dr. Faustus

photo by Russ Rowland

The Hysteria of Dr. Faustus, produced by The Seeing Place Theater at The Paradise Factory, is yet another turn on the Faustus myth. It’s written by Brandon Walker, who also plays the title role, and it’s directed by Erin Cronican, who also plays Wagner and Mephistopheles.

The play opens with the 80-year-old Heinrich Faustus addressing his Wittenberg class (us). He storms off after some inexplicable student heckling. When he’s at his home desk we meet his assistant, Wagner. Wagner is transformed into Mephistopheles and the good doctor makes his famous pact (he chooses the “highlight package”, for impatient people). After a quick trip to the bathroom to appreciate himself (and to let Mr. Walker remove his make-up), he’s transformed to age 30, which he will remain for 24 years. Heinrich Faustus becomes Henry Faust, English writer (although the actual, unfortunate progenitor of the myth was named Johann Faust).

The plot centers on Faust’s ruining a young girl, (Gretchen, of course). Her sister-in-law, oddly, is the fourth character.

There are real sparks of creativity in the script, as when Mephistopheles says “People are evil. I am only damned,” and when addressing God Himself, she says: “Humans are weak. So are you. So am I.” But the dialogue has several problems. Some of it is clichéd, as in the seduction, getting-to-know-you scene, and some of it, predictably, merely trivializes the myth, as when Faust calls Mephistopheles a “second-rate ghoul”. Cute but merely diminutive.

And the script is structurally amorphous. It dwells on the long seduction scene (Henry Faust succeeds with Mephistopheles’ help). And it skips some dramatic action altogether: we hear about an uncle and a niece who’ve died as a result of Faust’s actions, but we’ve never heard of them before. This technique is an interesting attempt at mystery, but it fails because we don’t believe the play. 

What’s more, Gretchen’s sister-in-law finds herself in purgatory, and that’s just silly. And yet the script’s most thoughtful and original moment occurs when she’s freed because Faust apologizes to her.

For the most part, we don’t believe the acting either. Mr. Walker has some nice moments as the bashful suitor (Mephistopheles calls him “an 80-year-old virgin”). And there are moments of truth when he repents. But he hasn’t found the spine of the character, and when he tries to play an 80-year-old academic, he’s beyond his means, too loud and heavy-handed.

Erin Cronican is competent throughout, but she never makes much of the opportunity to play two characters in the same body.

We applaud The Seeing Place Theater at least for attempting to translate the myth into the terms of the 21st-century. Playwrights from Christopher Marlow to Václav Havel have adapted it, and we’re glad to see the tradition carried on.

Steve Capra
October 2018