Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Frankenstein

photo by Adam Smith Jr.

How many works have been based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? Wikipedia (for what it’s worth) lists 39 pages in its Works based on Frankenstein category - novels, films, comics, video games. Mary Shelley accessed an archetype in our collective unconscious like few other writers.

Needless to say, not all of these adaptations are masterpieces. But stage adaptations of the novel promise, at least, to be rewarding; there’s a real dramatic conflict between Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature. And the musical is particularly right for this epic, operatic story.   

Eric B. Sirota has written the book, music and lyrics to a musical based on the novel. It’s called, appropriately enough, Frankenstein, and it’s been playing at St. Luke’s Theatre, Off-Broadway. It’s really good, a lively and entertaining stage response to Ms. Shelley, produced by John Lant, Tamra Pica and Write Act Repertory.

Clint Hromsco has directed the show with a great, refined sense of fun. The show parodies the source material - it parodies itself - gently and intelligently. The scene in which the Creature comes to life is played to great effect. Lightning flashes and then Dr. Frankenstien laughs, just as we expect - just as we want - but we never feel like we’ve seen it before, and it’s never heavy-handed. 

And there are serious dramatic issues going on in this play between the Doctor and the Creature. “Obey me! Obey me!” the Creature orders the Doctor, expressing some father issues.

From the moment he enters at the opening of the show, it’s clear that Jonathan Cobrda is going to give us a great performance as Dr. Victor Frankenstein. He’s called upon to stagger on to the stage and collapse. That’s pretty tricky for any actor, but Mr. Cobrda makes his entrance with surety, without a trace of falseness. He’s a gifted singer and actor. He sings with a really cool vibrato that he can turn off when he wants. He’s singing even when he’s speaking, and he never falters in this role until the end of the show when his voice gets a bit tired.

Danny Bristoll works very well as the Creature, solid in his acting and singing. He makes us empathize with this home-made monster. In fact, he’s rather too endearing and graceful. He could at least affect a limp or something. And he isn’t made up to be ugly enough to motivate Dr. Frankenstein's fleeing the room when he first sees his creation.

Writer, actor and director do great work dealing with the story’s big problem, a long speech the Creature has when he returns to meet the Doctor for the first time. It’s an unlikely narration (you’ll recall that the Creature has been living with the family of a blind man), but the team make it believable.  

The rest of the cast does a good job, as well. Amy London is fine as Elizabeth, the Doctor’s bride whom the Creature does in. She has a lovely church choir voice, but it’s not commanding in her lower registers. 

And the script is smart. “What if I create a race of demons?” Dr. Frankenstein asks, suggesting our concern with GMO’s. And “Why have you created me?” the Creature asks the Doctor, with theological overtones. “I wouldn’t suffer if I had no soul,” he cries.

Mr. Sirota does some weird stuff making the lyrics rhyme, using “I” for “me”. “All I ask of you is this - that you make her as I” the Creature says to Dr. Frankenstein when he asks for a wife. And he calls God “Creator if everyone but I”. Very strange. But then it’s a strange story.

The music is suitably varied, with some handy duets, if not particularly memorable. It relishes melodrama but it’s not cathected to it. However, the orchestra, which consists of only a piano, needs to be expanded.

And so Frankenstein continues to maintain residence on Monday evenings at St. Luke’s, one of New York’s Off-Broadway jewels, macabre and delightful.

Steve Capra
December 2017

The Mushroom Cure

photo by David Allen

The Mushroom Cure is an extended autobiographical monologue - 90 minutes - written and performed by Adam Strauss and directed by Jonathan Libman, currently playing at Theatre 80 St. Mark’s, Off-off-Broadway. It centers on Strauss’ attempts to treat his OCD through psychedelics, and his concurrent romance with a woman named Grace. The two stories are intertwined as Strauss explores psychedelics and the personal relationship. He meets Grace when he’s researching drugs, and she accompanies him to Martha’s Vineyard to take the magic mushrooms.

Libman understands the particular challenges of a solo show, and he deals with them with intelligence and precision. The performance has a nice variety, with clear differentiation between intimacy and humor, and there’s a living rhythm to the whole thing.

Strauss, who’s very talented, is at his best when expressing - and reliving - the experience of making a decision in the presence of OCD. He bounces violently between the one choice and the other. His work overall is meticulous and polished. He has varied and expressive vocal and physical lives, a committed moment-to-moment stage life and a commanding presence.

But there are a few problems here. The first concerns the script. It spends far too much time on a routine love story and not enough on Strauss’ hallucinogenic experiments.

The other problems concern the performance. The first is conceptual. Strauss usually relates the story without irony, without commenting on it in his acting. A script is animated by the tension between the words and the acting, and this show often lacks that tension.

And Strauss has technical problems with delivery. He doesn’t place characters in conversation - that is, he doesn’t look to his right when he’s speaking the words of one character and to his left when he’s speaking the words of the other. Worse, he almost ever makes eye contact with us when he’s talking to us; he looks over our heads.

The Mushroom Cure is appreciated, and it’s been well received. Still, the solo show is a challenging form that the production hasn’t entirely mastered.

Steve Capra
December 2017

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Black Glove

photo: Jonathan Slaff

August Strindberg wrote a children’s play? Strindberg? That great melancholic? So it would seem. August Strindberg Rep (Off-off-Broadway) has produced his final play, The Black Glove. It was written in 1909 and first produced in 1910. It was the fifth of his chamber plays, but not usually included in collections of those plays. It’s rarely produced and was indeed written, purportedly, for children.

Strindberg’s best known for his expressionism, but this play is set in an apartment building - seven floors and 21 units with heat, electricity and telephones. The Professor lives in the attic and The Caretaker lives in the basement. Among the tenants living between them is a bad-natured young Wife, who calls the building a “strange house where human destinies are piled one on the other side by side”. Also present are The Christmas Angel (the play is set on December 23rd and 24th) and an Elf.

The Wife, it seems, has lost a ring and a glove, and she blames one of the maids for the theft of the ring. To set the plot, such as it is, going, the Elf kidnaps the Wife’s baby - just for a day, and just because the Wife is so mean - at the request of The Christmas Angel.

Of course, all ends happily, and with nearly no plot twists. The glove is returned with the ring in it. The Wife asks for forgiveness, and her baby is returned to her.

Every Strindberg fan should see this play. It’s written in verse, and it shows a delicate side of the playwright that we might otherwise overlook.  It makes us realize that the despair in his plays was put there by design, not because he didn’t know any other way to write.

The various lines of the play reveal some interesting Strindbergian ideas. There’s a distrust of technology: “You might as well call it a ghost house…. I think these machines brought something with them.” And, more metaphysically, a surprising faith, “This is no human-handed work and therefore there is hope.” And there’s something genuinely profound being expressed when the Elf tells the Professor: “Do not get too close, for if you do you cease to see me.” The Professor echoes, of all people, Emily Dickinson when he says he’ll be happy “If I can make just one human heart glad.” 

August Strindberg Rep does a terrific job with this play in its production at The Gene Frankel Theatre, Off-off-Broadway. Director Robert Greer has mounted the show expertly, on a stage nearly bare, as the playwright would like. It’s all clear and precise. He’s limited the casting to women, and they give the show a gentle quality. The translation by Anne-Charlotte Harvey is nice and delicate, but she mixes contractions with non-contractions. Jo Vetter as the Professor and Diane Perell as The Caretaker give us very good work, but the show owes its success largely to Pilar Garcia as the Elf. She’s terrific in the role in her pointed red cap, with a fake beard and with bushy eyebrows that she raises delightfully.

Unfortunately, the cast, for the most part, speak the verse too slowly, word-by-word instead of phrase-by-phrase. And in the play’s pivotal scene, between The Professor and The Elf, Ms. Vetter lets her emotional life get the best of her delivery and we lose some of the words when The Professor has a vision. What’s more, Strindberg specified that the child must not be seen, and Mr. Greer has represented him with a doll.

That pivotal scene, by the way, is pretty darn heavy with philosophy. Strindberg rather leaves us behind sometimes, even in this play.

Is this show suited for children? I doubt it. It’s more of children’s theater as a form than theater for children. It’s symbolism, actually, faux-naif. But Congratulations to the August Strindberg Rep. The Black Glove is welcome.

Steve Capra
December 2017


Monday, December 11, 2017

The Mad Ones

Photo by Richard Termine


The Mad Ones, a musical by Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk appearing at 59E59 Theaters, takes its title from a line from Jack Kerouac’s book On The Road: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live…”. In fact, its central character, a young woman named Sam, carries a copy of the book around with her. She’s just graduated from high school. Her mother, Beverly, expects her to go to Harvard; her best friend, Kelly, expects her to go to a state college with her. What Sam wants to do - sort of - is to take to the road, although she only has a learner’s permit. And Kelly encourages her. Kelly “believes in listening to the road” - that is, wandering. 

We meet Sam at the show’s opening trying to make the decision of what to with with her life - with her next year, actually - and her decision-making provides the substance of the play, such as it is. The script proceeds with flashbacks until the final scene. In the process we meet, in addition to Beverly and Kelly, Adam, her dimwit boyfriend who genuinely seems to want her to do whatever’s best for her. 

There’s not much dramatic tension in this slim story line. What’s more, the theme, as well as the character types, has been well covered. The writers’ only point seems to be that a young woman has the same wanderlust as a young man. Young men, Beverly tells her daughter, are free to take to the road, but “You were born a woman and you’ll never be that free”. This is hardly a new thought. 

There may be a bit of a spoiler to follow, but not much. We’re told early in the play that Kelly dies. She’s so associated with road trips that we wonder “Does Sam kill her while driving? Does she die from driving recklessly herself?” But no, she dies accidentally, with no relationship to character or dramatic action.

The show has some nice moments, certainly. Adam, of course, has been wanting sex, but when Sam offers herself to him he initially declines. And Kelly has some sardonic lines. But the lyrics - the play is nearly through-sung - are written without irony, and they’re undistinguished. Worse, most of the songs - they’re pop style - sound alike. 

The cast of four does a good job singing this limited material. They’re fine, technically. But Jay Armstrong Johnson is given very little to do as Adam and so the play’s conceptual structure lacks balance. Krystina Alabado is competent as Sam, but she never really makes us care about her. Leah Hocking works well as Beverly, and Emma Hunting is outstanding as Kelly, giving the character more depth than the others.

Stephen Brackett directs with precision, but he works with a brutally sterile set, minimalist and unattractive, that oppresses the show. The orchestra consists of piano, guitar, harp and violin, creative but too heavy on the strings.

And so we are reminded that the musical is a form that demands a lot from its creators. The Mad Ones is not without talent, but it has little to say. The script could well be expanded and developed to create some complexity.

Steve Capra

December 2017

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Navigator in Love

Red Lab Productions and Otar Margania have just produced The Georgian-American Theatrical Feast at Teatro Circulo, Off-off-Broadway. The festival presented readings and full productions of plays by playwrights from The Republic of Georgia. One of the plays produced was Navigator in Love, by Lasha Bugadze.

This sad, funny play is about an office worker named Rostom who’s reassigned by his company to monitor its construction sites in the provinces. He’ll be driving for considerable distances, in spite of the fact that he hasn’t driven in 10 years, and in spite of the fact that he’s not qualified for the job. What’s more, he’ll be near “conflict areas” - read “war zones”. “Remember,” he’s told, “it’s like being sent to the front lines.”

Rostom is in the habit visiting a co-worker, Clara, in her office, and his reassignment prompts him to tell her about his attraction to her. “I only like coming to work because of you,” he tells her. Clara, unfortunately, considers their relationship strictly platonic, and she rebuffs him.

What’s more, Rostom’s life was is enough to begin with. He cares for his father, a mean old fellow. “Please don’t die now,” Rostom tells him, “I got problems at work.”

And so our anti-hero finds himself alone for hours on most days as he drives the company car to the provinces, with no one to talk to but the car’s navigator - ie, the GPS. It’s the sort of aural GPS that gives commands like “Turn in 10 meters.” He talks back to the female voice resentfully, angrily. And after a while, the navigator begins to speak more than directions; she responds to what Rostom says. She develops a personality. Poor lonely Rostom falls in love with the disembodied woman. And she falls in love with him.

The navigator knows a lot about Rostom. She knows the clothes in his closet. She tells him that Clara is pregnant by Rostom’s boss in the office, but Rostom finds out that it’s not true. “Clara’s pregnancy is my invention,” the navigator finally admits, “I didn’t want you to love her, so I told a lie. I was jealous”

Rostom’s behavior deteriorates on his days in the office - he confronts Clara when he thinks the navigator's fabrication is true. He becomes hostile. His bosses notice and take him off the assignment. But he’s too much in love to give up the navigator. He drives around aimlessly. “I’ll keep you and the car,” he tells the navigator, “I’ll live in the car.”

And so we watch as Rostom’s delusion takes over his life. The navigator is such a sophisticated hallucination that she seems to have a will of her own. Like Pygmalion, his statue comes to life.

In the role of Rostom, Michael Propster carries the bulk of the play. His work is absolutely terrific. As the navigator’s behavior becomes more and more outrageous, he responds with incredulity that wanes as he habituates to each level of delusion. Nervous and animated, he’s the very picture of loneliness. We believe every step of his descent into madness.

The rest of the cast does a great job of supporting Mr. Propster. In the largest of the supporting roles, Brett Epstein plays Rostom’s office buddy, giving a truthful and funny performance.

Adam Knight directs the show with marvelous precision, subtlety and humor. He’s never shy of expression, never heavy-handed. The set - his design - consists of two desks in this small space, with Rostom center in a swivel chair when he’s driving. It’s a delicate minimalism.

Lasha Bugadze’s play starts with a scene between Rostom and his boss in an elevator. The boss, very tall, towers over the short Rostom. And Rostom, nervous to be in close proximity, alone, to a higher-up, can’t stop laughing. Right away we know that this character is not entirely well in mind. Playwright, director and actor make a statement very quickly. 

And so in only 80 minutes this modest production evokes pity and terror. The ending is remarkable. We see that Rostom - this oppressed, insignificant guy - has a fate is as inevitable as that of Oedipus’. The so the play is a genuine tragedy on a small scale.

With the bulk of playwrights over-writing their plays, it’s great to find one like Ms. Bugadze who says so much in a slight play. In fact, we’d like to see a some of the secondary characters more developed.

Congratulations to this company on Navigator in Love!

Review
Steve Capra
August 2017

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Lili Marlene

The new musical Lili Marlene owes so much to the old musical Cabaret that its producers should be paying royalties. It’s set in Berlin only two year later than Cabaret. Its songs are sometimes sung on the cabaret stage as part of an act. The singer has a romance with an aristocrat, as in Cabaret the movie. There’s a Christian-Jewish romance, and there's a gay element in the script.

The show is produced by Tamra Pica and Write Act Repertory at St Luke's Theatre. Its book, music and lyrics have been written by Michael Antin. They’re all unremarkable. There’s no important conflict in the plot and the melodies are unmemorable. The lyrics vary in quality, sometimes interesting, sometimes cliched.

There’s a single moment of surprise in this play - and it’s an excellent one - when a song is interrupted. But the territory has been well covered, and Lili Marlene has hardly a single original idea.

The action is set immediately before and after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933. The story concerns a cabaret singer named Rosie. She was mentored by Marlene Dietrich, and she keeps her promise to that star by singing the song Lili Marlene at every performance.

Rosie is courted by a Count, Willi, and he introduces her to his sister and her family. They’re mildly disrespectful to Rosie because she’s Jewish, but their objections don’t create much drama. Willi’s nephew campaigns against the Nazis. Rosie refuses Willi’s offers of marriage. There’s also an undeveloped subplot involving Rosie and Renate, the cabaret’s lesbian compere.

Mark Blowers has directed so as to rob the narrative scenes of all dramatic tension. Actors face front even in intimate scenes. They often don’t use contractions, even in intimate scenes, although they’re inconsistent - sometimes they do use contractions. Nothing robs a scene of privacy more than not contracting words. And often the actors over-articulate, aspirating plosives, unlike real people.

Fortunately, a cabaret can hardly fail to entertain, and the play’s best moments occur on the cabaret stage, when we don’t expect much more than entertainment. Mr. Blowers work is more sure here. The group songs are fun, and we get a terrific compere. There’s also a great comedy duo who make anti-Nazi jokes.

The cast, who are very talented, do the the best they can under these circumstances. Amy Londyn can’t be faulted as a singer, but her church choir voice doesn’t carry the leading role. Moreover, she plays Rosie as a hopelessly nice Nice Girl, without depth. She’s right to avoid cliche, but she doesn’t reflect the counter-culture that made up the Weimar Republic’s cabaret society.

Clint Hromsco plays Willi, the Count, Rosies’s suitor, smartly, making much of a lackluster role. He’s sings very well, but he’s too respectful of the mediocre songs he’s been given. He should take more liberties in phrasing.

The great strong point of the show is Rachel Leighson’s performance as Renate, the cabaret hostess. Not only does she have a great voice, she also has a commanding stage presence. She masters the stage from the very opening, when she reminds us, her cabaret audience, not to click our ball-points.

There’s an interesting detail in the very minor character of the Count’s secretary, a man who moves militarily, in straight lines with right angles. The director has discovered an opportunity to express the military strain of German culture and, knowing the period, we find it ominous.

Granted, there are some interesting moments in the book, as when Rosie tells the Count “It’s true I could never marry you in Germany, but I’m an entertainer. Living in sin is practically expected.” If only the show were as good as its best moments!


Review
Steve Capra
August 2017

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Jessica

Robots are a well-covered subject, and since Karel ńĆapek wrote R.U.R. in 1920 it’s has been discussed on the stage. And so it’s good to see a playwright address the topic creatively. In Patrick Vermillion’s play Jessica (produced Off-off-Broadway by Sanguine Theater Company with IRT Theater at the IRT Theater), the title character has been missing for four years. Her boyfriend, Allister, hires a Lyfe Industries engineer, Rudy, to create a duplicate of her. Life Industries generally makes sex robots, or “companions”, as Rudy prefers to call them. The new Jessica, less a robot than a sort of clone, is perfectly life-like and animated. She’s charming; she converses in the ordinary way. Rudy turns her on and off. “She has a working brain,” he says.

Allister and Rudy research the real Jessica’s life and input memories into the robot Jessica. The idea is to recreate her personality so that she’ll remember what she was doing the day she disappeared. They’re aided by Mari, Jessica’s life-long friend. Allister convinces Mari to enlist the aid of Jessica’s estranged sister, Lillian. The more memories they can put into their robot, the more likely she is to realize the memory of her disappearance. It’s a strained conceit but it works dramatically.

Lillian, however, sabotages the project and tells Jessica that she’s a robot. This is supposed to disorient her to the point of annihilation, but instead, Jessica comes to life, so to speak, like Galatea.

And so Allister, Mari and Lillian each wants a piece of Jessica, in the sort of situation that we find among ourselves. At this point we expect the robot-come-to-life to rebel, but Mr. Vermillion has better sense, and he confounds our expectations. Jessica the android rebuffs Allister when he touches her, saying “I’m a robot and you’re human.” She’s cooperative and sensible. She has a will of own, however; she knows how Jessica the human disappeared but refuses to tell them.

The play ends without answering all our questions. It’s not poor structure; it reflects life.

Each character has a clear intention in this play, and the actors serve the script well, with clear decisions. Alli Trussell as Jessica is suitably reserved, indeed, as if she’s been programmed. Michael Patrick Trimm creates a volatile personality in Allister, whom Mari calls “manipulative”. His performance is animated almost to a fault. Anna Nemetz as Mari and Will Sarratt as Rudi are recognizable as people we’ve met without depending on type. Alison Scaramella gives the show’s best performance - a terrific performance - as Lillian, whom Mari calls “mean”. She’s a very fine actress, understated, with an internal life that she eternalizes effortlessly.

Emily Jackson directs Jessica by letting the play speak for itself. She’s disappeared behind the show. She’s kept her the production disciplined and unaffected, enjoying each moment without dwelling on it. She might have directed Allister to take a moment go pause, though.

Tyler M. Perry’s set, the “simulation room” of Lyfe Industries, is great, simple and antiseptic, lifelessly grey with rectangular lines. Real people look out of place in this artificial world, and we’re constantly reminded of the pre-eminence of technology here. The play takes place over multiple days, and I would have liked to see some slight costume changes.

And so Mr. Vermillion takes a familiar theme and discusses issues that transcend it. And it’s well executed, to boot. Well done. 

Steve Capra
Review

July 2017