Saturday, May 19, 2018

Falling Forward: An evening of ten-minute plays

Ten-minute plays are very difficult to write well. Actually, all plays are difficult to write well, but ten-minute plays give playwrights a particular challenge. They need to create a reality quickly. Nonetheless, a ten-minute play can be great. After all, drama needs compression.

Falling Forward: An evening of ten-minute plays, from Athena Theatre at Symphony Space, gives us 11 plays that succeed to various degrees. The scripts, which are mostly mediocre, are well served by some good acting. Of the 11 plays, seven use non-realistic techniques to deal with the challenges of this form. Of the remaining four, only one has a through line. 

Only two of the 11 plays are really successful; they present the best scripts and they enjoy the best acting. boys don’t look at boys [no capitals in the title], by Jeremy O’Brian, presents a high school student who earns the attention of his teacher through a monologue. The speech in question is delivered by a terrific actor, Freddie Jay Fulton. He has a fluid emotional life and an expressive physical life. He creates a complex and subtle character in this one monologue and gives it a structure. It’s a really good performance, but Mr. Fulton’s work is devitalized by his director, who’s directed him to face the audience although he clearly wants something from the other character.

The other successful script is A Departure by Grant MacDermott. In this play a woman is about to leave town for a week and she exhorts her husband to keep busy while she’s gone. Straightforward so far, and without development. But then the woman addresses the audience in a monologue about her closeted husband’s gay life. She talks to us as if she were talking to him. “If you told me the truth I would leave you,” she says. The wonderful actress is Anna Holbrook; she gives a reserved and expressive performance, passionate without being demonstrative.

The surrealistic techniques that most of the playwrights are simply facile. However, some are intriguing. Help Who’s Next, by Kathryn Funkhauser, repeats its core scene with minor variations. Finally Ms. Funkhauser deconstructs her own script and reassigns lines to actors other than the first to speak them. They do this while addressing us. Interesting ideas that we’d like to see developed. 

Otherwise, the scripts unsuccessfully employ a ghost, an object personification, deus ex machina, vulgarity, et al. The director of for all the plays, Veronica Dang, robs them of intimacy by telling actors to face front, as I’ve said, but otherwise keeps us engrossed by keeping things moving neither too quickly nor too slowly. Someone is credited with scenic design, but she doesn’t seem to have put much effort into it.

Perhaps future playwrights will look at our microdrama as a bold experiment. At any rate, they contribute to the diversity of our theater.

Steve Capra
May 2018

Sunday, May 6, 2018

randy writes a novel

photo by Alex Papps

Randy is a purple hand puppet who gives an 80-minute monologue from behind a table on stage, speaking educated strine. It’s a stand-up comedy act called randy writes a novel. The premise is that he’s going to read to us from the first draft of his novel. He’s reluctant to read, and by way of diversion he flies off on comic tangents.

The program credits the actor playing Randy as Randy, but between us the comedian’s name is Heath McIvor. Presenting himself through a felt puppet puts a whole new complexion on his comedy. We feel superior to a bug-eyed puppet, but through great puppetry we accept Randy as a character. He leans over the table, throws his head back on his scrawny neck, and throws his arms around (on control sticks). Through a varied vocal life, Mr. McIvor creates a complex personality, frustrated, angry, sly. He insults his audience without being offensive, and he’s common without being cheap. We allow ourselves to laugh at a puppet when he tries to turn a page with his clumsy puppet hand.

This is really smart stand-up. Randy references Ernest Hemingway (did you know he was a KGB spy?), Harper Lee (and the controversial publication of Go Set a Watchman) and greenhouse gasses (as they relate to veganism).

At his best, he’s inspired. We’re all “bubbling away in an evolutionary cul-de-sac,” he tells us in a mixed metaphor. And after a run of jokes only mildly successful (all stand-ups have unsuccessful runs), Randy says “I’m having a wonderful time. Feel free to join me.” Like all monologists, he’s at his best when he’s present in the room.

The script needs to stay closer too its premise, and, as with all stand-up, some of the vulgarity goes too far (I don’t know why stand-ups feel compelled to do this). But randy writes a novel is really funny, an Aussie import much appreciated.

Steve Capra
May, 2018

Friday, April 27, 2018

Miss You Like Hell

photo by Joan Marcus

Miss You Like Hell, at The Public Theater, is topical and timely, a musical about a Mexican resident of the US who’s requesting a stay of deportation (it’s also called a “cancellation of removal”, as if the individual were an object). But the play presents in its foreground not a political issue but a genuine personal drama. If it’s uneven, its concept is solid.

The character with the looming deportation hearing in Los Angeles is Beatriz. She surprises her daughter in Philadelphia, Olivia, whom she hasn’t seen in years, with a visit and an invitation to accompany her on a westward road trip for a week. The substance of the play is the mother/daughter bonding on this geographical and spiritual trip, accusation and forgiveness.

There are events on this road trip, but they’re episodes; one doesn’t lead to another. Early on the trip, they meet a pair of older gay men who travel the country getting married in each state (they’re on their 24th state). The men are unexpected and appealing for us. After they’ve been introduced to us, however, they only show up once again. They’re never assimilated into the plot, and we miss them. 

And there’s some confusion when Beatriz is stopped for a traffic violation. She has no license so she displays someone else’s, and for some reason she gets away with it. At any rate, the incident has no impact on the story. It just passes, like a thunderstorm.  

Mother and daughter also meet a tamales vendor and, happily, he remains in the story, a romantic object for Beatriz. But even he is not woven into the action. The script exhibits the problem that even our good playwrights have with structure.

The songs are undistinguished pop melodies with some cool lyrics: “My bones hurt because you’re not at my side.” and “When you’re home, sad conquistador, you will be received.” More interesting are the arrangements, with an ensemble of keyboards, percussion, accordion, viola, guitar, bass and cello. The chorus claps sometimes - and snaps their fingers! Neat!

The production is very well executed. Lear Debessonet’s direction is clear and crisp. The pacing never dwells and never rushes. The actors are handsome on their revolving stage with the ensemble and musicians behind them. The set is indifferently pleasing with its blue back wall and floor.

Daphne Rubin-Vega carries the play with a nimble performance as the worldly Beatriz. She sings well and acts with subtlety and assurance. We grow to care about her quickly. Gizel Jimenez, in the role of Olivia, is an absolutely terrific singer. However, as an actress she is too often on a single emotion, usually anger. When she tells her mother “You’re garbage,” we see no conflict in her. Danny Bolero gives a sensitive, effective performance as the tamales vendor. He’s a very fine singer, and in fact the show’s best moment occurs when he sings with a delicate guitar accompaniment.

“I will speak! I will be as loud as necessary! I will fight,” Beatrice says at her hearing, having found her surety through her daughter. The ending that follows is brilliant - striking, mature playwrighting - but the trip to get there, like all road trips, sometimes feels long. And so we enjoy Miss You Like Hell as we can, by the moment.

Steve Capra

April 2018


photo by Theo Cote

Romana Soutus’ play Martyrs, at La MaMa, presents nine women in a room with two king-sized beds and a garish sort of expressionist Madonna on the wall. The walls are chicken wire, like a cage.

This is a secluded cult, with three leaders whom the program calls cats, and six followers whom the program calls kittens. They’re all waiting be “lifted”, living in the eternal present. “There’s no before. There’s only now,” one says. They talk a lot, but nothing happens until late in the play. Nothing can happen because the characters, for the most part, are deliberately not individuated. The cats are three manifestations of cat and the kittens are six manifestations of kitten. What happens to one cat physically happens to all three.

This is innovative playwrighting as far as it goes. And it’s clever of Ms. Soutus to  keep the play so abstruse that we spend the early part asking “Who are these people? What’s happening?” However, she hasn’t overcome the problem of plotlessness, and the play doesn’t work because it has no shape. For example, one kitten says “What if I don’t want to be lifted?” An interesting question, but nothing comes of it.

The play is at its best when it gives us observations on the abandonment of individuality. When a kitten says “I want you,” it means they all want each other. And three kittens slap themselves simultaneously as a punishment for something or other - it’s not clear what.

And Ms. Soutus shows interesting flashes of insight: “I keep you around because I need a witness. Courage needs witnessing,” one cat says to the kittens. “I accuse myself of sadness,” someone says. And for all their spiritual blather, what we remember is a mysterious symbol: “You can never be empty with that toad in you,” a kitten says to a cat, reversing the teacher/student roles.

Ms. Soutus makes some interesting points otherwise as well. The cats are disappointed when they’re not lifted - “I’m not good enough. I tried so hard,” one says - but the kittens can deal with it. The cult followers have more freedom than the leaders here. 

The play is drenched in estrogen, of course, but it tastes like testosterone. Ms. Soutus confounds our expectations of femininity with violence.

Things do happen in the play, but they happen one after another without one leading to another. The director fails to explicate the action or give shape to the play. We’re usually bewildered. What’s more, the costume designer has put both the cats and the kittens in white. She’s making a statement, but she’s not helping us by obfuscating character entirely. Worse, the playwright has a disgusting obsession with toileting.

So let’s take from Martyrs what we can - a suggestion of how to write about homogenous personalities, the strength of delayed exposition… And leave the rest.

Steve Capra

April 2018

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

It Came from Beyond

What we do without science fiction? It keeps our imagination sharp even when it’s not on-the-mark predictive. And we can see the imaginative value even in the sci-fi of the past.

photo by Adam Smith Jr.

It Came from Beyond is a musical frolic through the sci-fi of the 1950’s, produced by John Lant, Cornell Christian and ICFB Productions, at St. Luke’s Theater. It’s not so much a send-up as an comic musical interpretation, with a book by Cornell Christianson and with music and lyrics by Stephen M. Schwartz and Norman E. Thalheimer. It presents a story about a high school student reading a sci-fi comic book paralleled by a story about a military scientist detecting an interplanetary invasion. So the writer has it both ways, and he does a great job of twining the two plot lines together. Actors double as students and military staff: the teen-age nerd parallels the military professor, the school bully parallels the alien in the military base, etc… It’s really cool!

Jim Blanchette’s direction has humor without being too silly. Most of the cast does a first-rate job: Clint Hromsco as the nerd and the Professor; David Doumeng as the Teacher and the Colonel; Fielding Kaitlyn Baldwin as the Teacher’s Aide and the Colonel’s lovelorn Private. The actor playing the bully/alien is unfortunately miscast.

Mr. Christianson is well aware of the way 50’s sci-fi played on 50’s McCarthyism, and the theme gives the book some of its best lines. “We’ve got spies on this base - commie spies. They all look like Stalin,” the Colonel says. When the extra-terrestrials invade, he shouts “That’s no asteroid… It’s a commie sneak attack!” and “Don’t fire ’til you see the reds of their eyes.”

The song lyrics, as well, reflect the specific delights of 50’s culture. Some of it is fluff: “Annette Funicello turns me into jello - She’s sweet as an Abadaba.” And some is more clever, celebrating 50’s blandness: “I just wanna thank creature that made me blank,” the alien sings. And we find 50’s paranoia in the song “Are you one of them?”

There’s a bit of confusion in the symbolism (who’s blank, the people or the aliens?). And the company has made the mistake of using recorded accompaniment, (other musicals have used keyboards in that space). People don’t go to the theater to hear a recording.

It Came from Beyond is hardly ground-breaking. We enjoy its very predictability.   But it’s great fun!

Steve Capra

April 2018

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Love Trade

photo by Theo Cote

The pre-show set of The Hess Collective’s production of Elizabeth Hess’ play Love Trade, at La MaMa, is stunning: when we enter the theater we see something shrouded under white gauze, in a white spotlight, with dozens of white balloons on the floor, all on an otherwise unadorned stage with a black floor and backdrop. When the show begins that something begins to move and gradually reveals itself to be actress, but she removes the gauze so subtly (by the lower layers, I think) that the revelation is gradual. We see her arms moving and we’re astonished when a third arm appears, and then a fourth. Ultimately two actresses reveal themselves. Great! The two laughing women show themselves to be Persephone and Demeter. 

To review that wonderful Greek myth: Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, is kidnapped by Hades, the god of the underworld, who brings her to the nether-world with him. While Demeter searches for her, the crops don’t grow, as she is too preoccupied to grow them. Finally she brings Persephone back to earth. However, Persephone has eaten a few pomegranate seeds in the underworld, as so she’s obliged to spend a few months of every year down there with Hades. In some versions of the myth, these are the winter months, when Demeter grieves so for her daughter that the world is cold and barren.

Ms. Hess, who also directs, gives us a version of the myth focused on the relationship between mother and daughter. Indeed, the third character, Hades, never speaks. Instead, he plays the cello, to wonderful effect.

In this retelling, Persephone is a rebellious child who calls her cold mother “an icon instead of living flesh” (both characters think aloud). When she falls for Hades, she throws herself at him. “She just couldn’t keep her hands off him” she says of herself. “Persephone wanted to make a mockery of her mythic self,” Demeter says with the insight only a mother could have as she watches her daughter make a spectacle of herself on the (disco) dance floor. She says that Persephone escaped “a world where there wasn’t room for more than one goddess,” while Persephone calls that world “no life, no color, white, bloodless.”

But this is no feminist tale of victimization. After Persephone has been taken to the underworld, Demeter herself says of Hades “Now he was the victim of kidnapping… obliged to stay indoors.” He thought she was a bad girl, but he was disappointed.

One of the plays’ best moments occurs when Persephone, who until now has been the epitome of girlish charm, realizes that she’s in the nether-world. She spews obscenities, as if she were possessed in more senses then one. Demeter refers to “this black night of broken hymens.” And through her maturation, Persephone develops her sense of self. She refers to herself in the third person for most of the play, but finally uses the word “I”.

Actually, her words are “Kali, Persephone, I”. Ms. Hess is mixing the story with other cultures. The character I’ve been calling Hades is in the play more often referred to of Shiva. The goddess Kali is Shiva’s counterpart/foil. When Persephone spies the man-god at the play’s climax, she cries “My God! There he was! Shiva, the god of the orient! … Nothing like her occidental self, so fair and fun-loving.” “Shiva assumed the shape of Hades, at home with death and devastation,” Demeter explains.

The execution of Ms. Hess’ concept is flawless. She pays Demeter herself with humor and authority, and Katie Palmer is irresistible as the eternal gamine. They’re striking in their white costumes. Lucas Tahiruzzaman Syed, in black as Hades/Shiva, plays the cello mysteriously, and takes his curtain call with it, as well. It’s all kept down to one hour, no longer than is necessary for the play to make its statement.

Ms. Hess’ retelling of the myth is inspired and poetic. But where is the end of the myth? She doesn't mention the delicious pomegranate seeds or Persephone’s annual return to the underworld. And so we miss the larger point, that we never entirely overcome the past. Of course, the playwright has no obligation to use any material she doesn’t want to use, but that coda to the myth would have given the piece a dramatic shape, as a sort of third act. It would have enhanced her theme as well.

And it’s great fun to mix cultural references, but I’m not convinced that it enhances the Persephone myth. Is the relationship between Persephone (Life) and Hades (Death) really the relationship between Kali (Time) and Shiva (Eternity)?

Love Trade is that rare sort of play that we actually want more of - a relief when the overwhelming bulk of plays are overwritten. Another example of marvelous work from La MaMa.

Steve Capra

April, 2018

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Distant Observer

photo by Paula Court

Distant Observer: Tokyo/New York Correspondence, presented by La MaMa at La Mama, was written by two playwrights, one in New York and one in Tokyo. The segments of the final script alternate between the work of the two of them. The play, then, is modeled after a renga, a Japanese verse form in which multiple writers collaborate.

The creative method is interesting, but Distant Observer reflects nothing of this dyad process. It simply makes no difference, as we can’t discriminate between the style of the two writers, at least in translation.

The two playwrights in question are Takeshi Kawamura and John Jesurun, and the play is strange even by Off-off-Broadway standards. Its five actors play characters who are essentially amorphous. Although one is called “Mary” at one point, the only other names assigned are “A” and “B”. One character even says “I’m not even a character. I’m just some kind of idea floating around.” and “I think we have become each other.” 

The story, such as it is, concerns a man who’s confessed to a murder, although the event may have been a suicide. The victim’s sister, indeed, offers him money when he gets out of prison, in gratitude. “He hid my sister’s shame,” she says of him. 

Reality itself is amorphous in this play. Even the ex-offender can’t be trusted in monologue; he confesses to us at the play’s opening: “I was 19 when I killed her. … I don’t even know why I did it. I was crazy and I love with that girl. … I can never make the done undone.” However, the victim’s sister says that the victim bought the poison and stated her suicidal plan herself. The convict seems to be trying to convince himself.

Mid-play the setting shifts to a scene that represents Aokigahara, the Japanese forest where people go to commit suicide. “I can’t stand the stupid faces of hanging corpses,” one character says. Then the killer (the not-killer?) confesses to burning the forest down to stop the suicides - but perhaps he hasn’t. “There is no fire as far as we know,” a character says during a discussion of the fire.

But the dominant characteristic of the production is not plot nor theme nor dialogue but the delivery of the lines. Every moment, without exception, gives us rat-tat-tat readings, as if the actors were machine guns aimed at each other in trench warfare. Emotions are indicated, but they have no real effect on the characters, and certainly not on us. Paradoxically, the effect is to create an intense involvement in the audience. We pay rapt attention to the performers throughout the short piece. It’s riveting. We may not understand, but we don’t have the time to be bored.

No director is credited. The entire package seems to be the concept of Messrs. Kawamura and Jesurun. The cast - Anastasia Olowin; Kotoba Dan; Claire Buckingham; Kyle Griffiths; Samuel Im - are absolutely faultless. The acting has the sharply defined veneer of Arita ware.

The production uses lovely video and creative staging incidental to its dazzling concept. Distant Observer is fascinating work that only glows more brightly in memory.

Steve Capra
March 2018