Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Kidnap Road

Ingrid Betancourt was a Colombian Senator who was kidnapped by FARC rebels while she was running for President in 2002. She was held hostage in the jungle for six-and-a-half years. Catherine Filloux has written a play based on Ms. Betancourt’s experience, Kidnap Road, which was recently presented by La MaMa.

The handsome set, by Justin Townsend, consists of a cube of violent white representing Ms. Betancourt’s prison. It has perforations in it, and it’s surrounded by long sticks representing the forest. There’s a swing downstage, suspended from the ceiling.

There are two performers in this production. Ms. Betancourt is played by Kimber Riddle. Marco Antonio Rodriguez plays a number of characters, including another hostage, a FARC guard, Ms. Betancourt’s father, and God.

Ms. Betancourt speaks with the other characters as the play moves around in time and location. In the most interesting dialogue, she talks with God, Whom Mr. Rodriguez sometimes plays while swinging on the swing. He’s as real to her – and to us – as is her fellow hostage or the FARC guard, as if her imprisonment has led her to hallucinate.

Some scenes take place prior to her kidnapping. The opening line is “Here is a condom! If you vote for me, you are wearing a condom against corruption!” It’s spoken when she addressing a crowd as Presidential candidate. And there are scenes when she talks with her father. “There is nothing more dangerous than a feminine feminist,” he tells her, although his reasoning on this point is not clear.

Sometimes she talks to herself, sometimes speaking poetry. And there are intriguing lines like “God is an existentialist,” and “The problem is there are no secrets from God and God says different things on different days.”

In one of the show’s best moments, the guerillas film her. She sits silently and eloquently, with her head down. Then she says “Here, now, God, in front of the commander’s camera, I call on you.”

In other scenes, she speaks with a fellow hostage who was also a Colombian Senator. She speaks in English; he speaks in Spanish. The device isn’t jarring, oddly, and it works well.

Under the direction of Elena Araoz, the play moves along without ever dwelling too heavily on the moment. Her direction is skillful, but most scenes lack dramatic tension because there’s so little in the script.

Ms. Riddle’s performance is technically focused and well analyzed. But she never expresses the experience of imprisonment. Indeed, she looks absurdly pretty and fresh throughout her horrendous experience. She registers desperation three times, when she hears helicopters. Mr. Rodriguez, likewise, gives a solid performance, but he doesn’t differentiate his characters adequately.

The dialogue is compelling, but Catherine Filloux hasn’t dramatized the incidents of Ms. Betancourt’s story; she only relates the events. And she doesn’t convey the horror of imprisonment. Instead, she focuses on the hostage’s internal life.

Making God a character in Ms. Betancourt’s life is an inspired idea on the part of Ms. Filloux. Indeed, the ex-Senator is currently pursuing a PhD in Theology. However, Ms. Filloux seems to tell us that Ms. Betancourt attended Oxford before being kidnapped. This is unclear. But Kidnap Road is absorbing, even if it doesn’t have a great deal to say.

Steve Capra
May 2017

Karen Finley: The Expanded Unicorn Gratitude Mystery

Karen Finley’s latest work is The Expanded Unicorn Gratitude Mystery. It’s recently been presented by La MaMa as part of its Downtown Icons Series. And that’s suitable: Ms. Finley has been the very picture of downtown theater for decades.

In the 1990’s she was one of the NEA Four, performers whose NEA grants were canceled for violating “general standards of decency”. Ms. Finley took the government to court. The case finally ended up before the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the government.

The set for this production is really cool, cluttered, with music stands and a small table, all draped with fabric, and fabric hung like laundry, fabric hanging on the wall. There are two versions of The Unicorn in Captivity, and unicorn bric-a-brac.

As she has so often in the past, Ms. Finley performs solo, reading from a script, generally unbridled, sometimes in a harsh whisper, sometimes hysterical. She makes no attempt to impersonate people. The writing is inconsistent, self-contradictory, consistently surprising, its point of view constantly shifting.

She opens with a long prose poem about unicorns, and the mythical beast is an ambiguous, not to say slippery, symbol: “The unicorn is here. The unicorn is there.”… “There is no job too small for the unicorn because even without hands the unicorn will get the job done.”… “The unicorn attended Montesorri.”… “Shut the fuck up, unicorn!”

She moves on to present Hillary Clinton: “After I was beaten, I do not remember any of it.”… “I am the best at forgiving because nobody can forgive like I forgive.”… “I don’t like Hillary but I am Hillary and I just don’t like the way she talks.”

In the show’s best moment, she talks about Monica Lewinsky’s famous “cobalt blue” dress. Then she takes a huge piece of blue fabric and, with the help of stage hands, spreads it over the heads of the entire audience. It’s a brilliant stage metaphor for the public’s obsession with the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.

Next, she morphs into no less a personage than Donald Trump: “Don’t touch my hair. Don’t touch my junk.”… “It was about running against Hillary.”… “I took up where Bill let go.” The scene ends with the line “Who’s wearing the blue dress now?”

The final segment of the performance is quite brief, and so different from the earlier ones that it seems to be from another show. The unrestrained messiness of the earlier segments, so typical of Ms. Finley’s work, is gone, and she reads in a refined voice, not even suggesting a character. The material concerns a woman who picks up veterans. Here is a man who would die for her, she writes. “They will die yet they walk around as if they own the whole god damn world!”

When I interviewed her in 1999, Ms. Finley said “If you're just eaten a hot dog, you just want to keep that bun white. You don't want some seven-grain bun hand-made from sprouted wheat - you want to have the bun.” She’s remained true to that minimalist vision with her one-performer show. She’s still a unique, brash, enormously creative stage presence.

Steve Capra
May 2017

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Conspiracists

“Every time they fire up The Large Hadron Collider, they open up a portal to a parallel universe,” a character in The Conspiracists points out. What’s more, “the collider was fired up 12 hours ago.” Quite promising for the first scene of a play. Or the second or third, for that matter. And indeed, we hear these lines in all three scenes of The Conspiracists, a clever play by Max Baker. The three scenes all take place at 8:47 pm on November 1, 2016, in the same church basement. The Under-35 Conspiracy Theorists Addict Support Group is holding their weekly meeting in each scene. “My name is Win and I’m addicted to conspiracy theories,” its leader announces.

The three scenes are alike in many of their particulars. The four regular attendees of the group are the same. We find Jo sitting alone when the lights come up; Win enters and says “Oh, hey Jo.” Then the other two regulars and a newcomer join them. The newcomer has a different name in each scene, although she’s played by the same actress.

The group discusses issues from CERN and computationalism to reptilians and Santa Claus. Nibiru Planet X, we learn, will cause the end of humanity. And the person who designed the pattern on Oreos was a member of the Illuminati.

While the simultaneous evenings these truthers spend together are much the same, each is an individual. Mr. Baker has written variations on a template. And he gives us a fascinating sensation of déjà vu.

There’s no plot here, only a few events. Mr. Baker directs the show for Stable Cable Lab Co. at the IRT Theater. He keeps us involved through the physical details and subtle personal interactions of ordinary life. They’re presented with terrific dramatic truth. A trivial incident like folding a chair because there’s a smudge on its seat becomes significant when we’re in a parallel universe.

The pivot of the events is the newcomer to the group, named Madonna, Steve or Hilda, depending on which reality we’re in. Each has a different effect on the group. They’re meant to be distinct characters, but the single actress in the roles fails to distinguish between them adequately. Worse, she’s given some silly things to do.

The cast, however, display an honest, eloquent moment-to-moment stage life, always sure of themselves. Chief among them is Sofiya Cheyenne. She’s always emotionally grounded, and her array of expressions forms a complex, intriguing character.

Mr. Baker has directed with meticulous care. He and his actors work with a clear, distinct analysis. The performance is a series of interlocking emotions as the characters pass the evening together.

The Conspiracists would be more satisfying if each scene had a structured story. But the show clocks in at less than 90 minutes, and we’d be happy to see more of it – that’s a lot to say for a piece of theater.

Steve Capra
April 2017

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Room Sings

Sitting in the audience of The Room Sings, I thought of Caliban’s marvelous speech in The Tempest:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

And so is this play full of noises that give delight. The Room Sings, which is presented by La MaMa in association with Talking Band, blends dialogue with background sound and music so beautifully that they together form one sublime soundscape. There are chirping and banging, vibes and a sort of pinging, and a voice that’s doing something like scatting. There are water sounds and a sound that’s a cross between a whistle and a soft scream. And when the coyote cries, one of the characters says “It sounds like it’s in pain.”

The aural delights aren’t beneath the dialogue in the way we might expect. Sound and dialogue are carefully woven together in this production. Indeed, the cast deliver their lines as if those lines were music. As directed by Talking Band’s Artistic Director Paul Zimet, who also wrote the script, their voices are instruments for the melody of speech. There’s a gentle artifice to their acting that’s most clear in the murder scene: there are a couple of stylized slaps and a clean, endearing killing.

There’s no real story here, just a few events. The play concerns a house and its series of occupants. Its short scenes jump around between 2015, 1987, 1958 and, finally, 1943, which year hosts the notorious murder of a nasty old man by his nasty old sister. We like all these people, and although a couple of sad things happen, they manage well enough.

The entire cast are meticulous and eloquent. Chief among them is Henry Yuk as an older man who talks to his deceased mother and offers her “ghost food” in the Chinese tradition. When he delivers a barrage of obscenities he’s entertaining, not offensive. When he tells a young fellow about the murder in the house, his tale is suitably eerie.

But there’s more to the play than the house and its inhabitants. There’s a sort of host, played by an actress, who sings and sort of dances and distances the action for us. And the show wraps up with an opera that one of the characters has written. Its characters are beavers, and the terrific beaver puppets are by Ralph Lee.

Paul Zimet’s direction never falters. He gives the show a uniform tone when the house’s residents are speaking, and he keeps the host and the puppet opera whimsical.

The attractive set, which consists of smallish platforms on wheels, is by Nic Ularu. The wallpaper in the house is described as “faux Chinese landscape”. The very nice costumes are by Kiki Smith. When the host wants to indicate that he’s not an on-stage presence, he hides his face with his boater. And on the top of the boater is painted the same design as the faux Chinese landscape wallpaper. It’s really kool.

The problem with The Room Sings is that there’s no depth to the characters or their situations. For all Mr. Zimet’s formidable talents as a director and sound designer, his script offers no discussion. We’d like to hear the lyricism of this production coupled with characters who change and grow. As it is, we're satisfied with the show’s marvelous flavor.

Steve Capra
April 2017

Friday, April 14, 2017

Rare Birds

Adam Szymkowicz’ play Rare Birds, which has just been produced by The Red Fern Theatre Company at the 14th Street Y (off-off-Broadway), is a study of high school bullying. I’m going to tell you the plot, so beware – I include a spoiler! I’m doing it because it needs to be discussed in detail.

Dylan and Mike bully Evan mercilessly. They beat him up at school and execute a cyberbullying scam that leads him to make a video that he thinks is going to Jenny, the girl he’s after. Actually, of course, it’s going to Dylan, who shows it to the school student body. Worse, Dylan, who’s the lead bully, shows up at Evan’s bedroom window and gives him a gun, telling him to shoot himself. Evan makes a suicide video and is about to blow his brains out when Jenny shows up at his window. Mike has sent her, after Dylan told him about giving Evan the gun. Jenny saves Evan by validating his worth.

There’s also a subplot concerning Evan’s mother and her boyfriend, Ralph. Ralph tries to teach Evan to fight. “Sometimes the big kids pick on the smaller kids” Ralph reminds him. But Evan trusts no one, and, besides, he’s in denial: “I don’t need to know how to defend myself.”

Mr. Szymkowicz’ portrait of the young man is complex. He shows Evan to be hostile to his mother and Ralph, and we can see in his scenes with Ralph how intense his Oedipal complex is. We can see what a dork he is when he approaches Jenny. “How has your day been thus far?” he asks her (she rebuffs him). And in his suicide video, in the play’s most truthful moment, he says “This is all your fault. I want the guilt to eat you up.”

The core of the bullying problem, we learn, is that Dylan is gay, and attracted to the straight Evan. We know Dylan’s gay because he tries to give Mike a feel while they’re wrestling. What’s more, Jenny says that she saw Dylan naked, apparently lewdly so, with her last boyfriend.

Certainly, repressed homosexual urges account for a lot of bullying among boys. But Dylan’s sexuality isn’t repressed; he’s sexually active. Rare Birds is a regression to the homophobic depiction of the gay as predator. The bullies call Evan a faggot; Dylan is the gay as gay-basher. Even Dylan’s name is derogatory – it suggests one of the Columbine killers, who were called gay by certain parties.

Evan is redeemed when he kisses a girl – that is, because he’s straight. When Ralph tries to teach Evan to fight, Evan accuses him of molesting him, for no reason. Within the context of the play there’s no positive gay perspective.

The script is well crafted, never flagging, with carefully wrought dialogue. But Mr. Szymkowicz resorts to contrivance when Jenny shows up just in time to save Evan’s life. More importantly, he doesn’t discuss the problem of bullying thoroughly. After nearly killing himself, Evan is saved miraculously. Mr. Szymkowicz never suggests how to deal directly with being victimized.   

Scott Ebersold has directed masterfully. He keeps the stage fluid and dynamic, and he allows his actors to shine. The entire cast performs well, although the two bullies aren’t given much to do except to be mean. Tracey Gilbert smiles impotently as Evan’s mother, knowing she can’t discipline him. Robert Buckwalter is suitably patient as Ralph. Jake Glassman gives us terrific work as Evan, truthfully revealing various contradictory aspects of the character as the script demands.

And so Rare Birds is a well-executed production of a script that lacks cultural truth. In this topsy-turvy dramatic world, the gays bully the straights. Mr. Szymkowicz needs to rethink his concept.

Steve Capra
April 2017

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Tao Marayao (The Good Person)

Tao Marayao (The Good Person) is a dance/movement piece about the Samal Balangingi, a maritime tribe from an island in the Southern Philippines. It’s part myth, part cultural history, presented through traditional Samal dance and narrative movement. Its story concerns the Spanish Conquest, from the arrival of the conquistadors to a sort of Samal diaspora in America.

Tao Marayao is presented by La MaMa, in association with Kinding Sindaw, an organization with the mission of preserving indigenous Philippine culture. The show’s concept comes from Potri Ranka Manis Queano Nur (of Kinding Sindaw), who also directed and choreographed the show. The choreography ranges from stylization of real-life movement, as when the oarsmen row ships, to pure dance, as when the Samal women dance for visitors. The dance/movement is wonderful, graceful, a delight to watch. The barefoot dancers’ toe-out walk, their eloquent hand and finger gestures, their high-kneed walk are absolutely delicious. They generally move with calm, impassive faces, and at one point the performers sing in the Samal language. There are 18 dancers, including, happily, some children.

The dancers’ work is complemented by gorgeous, traditional costumes (Flor Dechavez is credited as the costume seamstress). There are rich, sumptuous colors in the solids and prints, in the sashes, dresses, pants and headscarves. Some of the men wear painted bamboo hats. Sometimes the women’s hair is elaborated with strings of pearls (the Samal were expert pearl divers). There are pearls on their earrings and some wear exotic janggay, finger extensions.

There are four musicians in the show, forming a kulintang ensemble, playing percussion instruments. The gandingan and the agung are types of gongs. The klutang is a wooden beam, and the kubing is a sort of jaw harp. Anklong are bamboo instruments that are shaken. The ensemble also play drums and a flute. The music is marvelous, haunting and commanding by turns.

We can follow the frame of the story through the performance alone. The Spanish arrive, with their armor and black beards, and are driven away. They return and kidnap the children. The Samal fight and overcome the Spanish, but the Spanish then overpower them. Finally, the Samal men end up in America, utterly degraded, as something like gladiators. “Savages” they’re called, who “fight to the death” for an audience.

However, there’s more to the dance than the story, and we miss much of it because there’s no surtitles and no onstage narrator. It’s not clear what’s represented by what we’re watching. There are scenes from everyday life interspersed in the story, with the Samal working the fields and winnowing. And there are traditional tales as well, such as a tale of mermaids stealing pearls from a monkey. It’s lovely to watch, but inscrutable. Of course, it’s all explained in the program notes, but with 13 scenes in a 90-minute show, we can’t remember while we watch the performance what we read earlier.

Nonetheless, Tao Marayao is marvelous. Its movement is the very picture of grace and elegance, and it’s danced superbly. We’re thankful that Kinding Sindaw is preserving this form of storytelling.
Steve Capra
April 2017

Friday, April 7, 2017

Vanity Fair

William Thackeray wrote Vanity Fair as a monthly serial between 1847 and 1848. It was well received and set the foundation for later novels to come, in the Victorian era. Its story, set during the Napoleonic Wars, centers around two young women, friends, Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley. We meet them as they leave Miss Pinkerton’s Academy and we follow them as their and their husbands’ fortunes rise and fall. Thackeray’s moral points are clear throughout. His concerns are with money and status, and their corruption of society and our personal relations.

Thackeray contrasts Becky, the sharp-witted adventuress, with the conventional and virtuous Amelia. Amelia comes from a prosperous family and marries George Osborne for love. However, since her father has been ruined and she is now poor, George’s father disinherits him. Becky, on the other hand, is a penniless orphan who marries a man, Rawdon Crawley, who has at least the hope of an inheritance. She climbs the social ladder through shrewd manipulation of those around her and improves her lot by accepting gifts from admirers.

Kate Hamill has adapted the lengthy novel into a lengthy play, with great success. Vanity Fair has been produced by The Pearl Theatre Company. As directed by Eric Tucker, it’s a terrific production, altogether satisfying. Running two-and-a-quarter hours, it doesn’t seem a moment too long. Ms. Hamill has, of course, simplified the expansive novel, but the texture of the script is still full and rich.

Most in the cast of seven play multiple roles. The exceptions are the two actresses. Kate Hamill herself plays the central role of Becky. It’s a marvelous, bravura performance. Ms. Hamill plays this smart, resentful hustler with a constant sneer. She manages to make us relate to Becky, if not to admire her.

Becky, of course, has to make her own way in life. “I shall win this game or die trying,” she says of life. She and Rawdon live off loans that they have no intention of paying back, and in the show’s most topical moment she reminds us “Debt makes the world go round.”

As Amelia, the victim personality, Joey Parsons has a less sensational role, but she is nonetheless vivid and engaging. The five actors in multiple roles give us great work, showing themselves to be versatile and skillful. They’re masterfully led by Zachary Fine, whose chief role is The Manager, who addresses us opening and closing the show and from time to time throughout, with a cynical and knowing tone. At the show’s opening he tosses a hat halfway across stage squarely on to a hat rack. His first line is “There are no morals here – in our play, I mean,” and he establishes his relationship with us immediately.

Eric Tucker directs with enormous precision and humor. The stage is constantly animated. The pace never flags and we never weary of these 19th-century characters who behave so badly and are so like us. Through the humor and the staging, Mr. Tucker keeps us aware that we’re watching a play, never letting us get so involved that we miss the point. This is fine Brechtianism.

The words “good” and “bad” keep appearing in Ms. Hammill’s script. Becky tells Amelia “Try not to be too good.” The wealthy matriarch, Rawdon’s aunt, tells Becky “Never be too good or too bad,” and “With enough money you can be bad indeed and still be respectable.”  But the irony is never oppressive; the director keeps it within the drama. And when The Manager addresses us, he speaks with such entertaining irony that we’re eager to hear him.

In my favorite exchange in the script, Rawdon warns Becky against one of her admirers. “He has a bad reputation,” he tells her. “So do we,” she replies. 

Sandra Goldmark’s scenic design does a fine job of supporting the production’s concept. She’s lit the stage with bare bulbs on the walls in a design suggesting a carnival, and they’re a constant comment on the characters’ behavior. Her choice of flooring, however – it looks like tattered linoleum – is puzzling.

Ms. Hamill or Mr. Tucker inserts a few moments of Michael Jackson-style dance, and it’s intrusive. And there are moments when the playwright throws rather too much at us at once, and we’re confused. But The Pearl Theatre Company has mounted a great success.

Steve Capra
April 2017