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 Čapek 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

Thursday, July 27, 2017

A Toy Gun

The Georgian-American Theatrical Feast has been taking place Off-off-Broadway, introducing audiences to theater from the country of Georgia through several readings and two full productions presented by Red Lab Productions. The production I attended was of Tamar Bartaia’s two-character play A Toy Gun, presented by Red Lab Productions and Otar Margania.

The play’s story begins with a 14-year-old girl (Mea) auditioning for a popular actor (Yo), who humiliates her, saying “You’ve got not talent”. She soon returns to the theater threatening him with a realistic toy gun. He grovels on his knees, saying “You were the most talented of all the girls.” She tosses the gun aside and leaves. 

This event is the only important piece of dramatic action in the play. Indeed, the characters hardly see one another again. What’s noteworthy about the script is Ms. Bartaia’s deft dialogue technique. The actors nearly always address us; the dialogue at the audition is atypical. They can generally - not always - hear one another. There are a few speeches, but Mea and Yo usually speak in short or medium-length lines that meld together creating one flow:

Mea: They’re having auditions! They’re putting on Romeo and Juliet. Any 14-year old girl who fancies it and who’s got some acting talent can come along.

Yo: In that case they can have me as the director.

Mea: Do you know who’s putting it on? Yoram! Yes, yes, it is! I’ll go crazy. God, what am I going to do if I don’t get the part… No, that’s out of the question, I’ve got to play Juliet!

Yo: I’m in charge of the casting committee… All this stupid stuff’s too much for me. But what can you do?

They alternate between the present tense and the past tense in a manner that’s illogical but makes dramatic sense.

As the play progresses, Mea becomes a famous mezzo-soprano (in a very unlikely plot turn, she’s discovered singing with friends, and offered the role of Carmen at La Scala). Yo abandons acting and becomes  playwright. They marry their respective spouses and pursue their careers, travel and return to Georgia, telling us all along about their lives. But most of their lives don’t concern the other character. After the scenes at the audition, there’s no dramatic tension, and we miss a plot.

But Ms. Bartaia offers some interesting insights. Mea and Yo reveal character through what they say, not what they do. “I don’t want to talk about my celebrity life. It is as banal and boring as any other,” Mea tells us. And “It’s terrible when you want to cry and you have to sing instead.”

There are two jumps of time in the story - one of ten years and a second of 20 years. There are two Georgian wars - a civil war, which was the Abkhazia war of 1991, and the three-day war 2008. The narratives, however, essentially glide over them. Ms. Bartaia’s concern is with the characters’ internal lives, not their societal lives. But Yo makes an interesting observation during the civil war: “Nobody needs the cinema, theater or even actors in this country.”

The production is directed very creatively by Becky Baumwoll. She works on a bare stage, with audience in two areas facing each other on either side of the playing area, creating a nice intimacy. The actors are barefoot. The floor is strewn with envelopes. During the play, the actors open a few and pour from them colored sand on the floor in a large circle. It’s lovely.

Tara Giordano and Luke P. Younger play Mea and Yo, respectively, with contrasting delivery styles that give the lines a nice music. They both show understated contrasts within the characters as they mature. Mea progresses from “I’ve got to play Juliet” to “I don’t want anything anymore.” Yo moves from a smug “I’m a very popular actor, you could say the most popular actor actor in the country” to “I haven’t been able to work on stage for ages.”

And so A Toy Gun is an appealing, modest production. At 70 minutes, it’s the correct length. Its tightly intertwining narratives suggest an intriguing flow of time, and its actors match that with adept flows of emotion. If the script would benefit from more conflict, well, we appreciate its gentle lyricism.

Review

Steve Capra
July 2017

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Enchantment


Victoria Benedictsson was a Swedish writer writing at the end of the 19th century. She’s noted for her novels and, to a lesser extent, for a play called The Enchantment. She had a passion for the famous critic Georg Brandes, and it’s conjectured that he seduced her. At any rate, she committed suicide in 1888, just after writing The Enchantment.

Her life was well known, and she is said to have been a model for Strindberg’s Miss Julie and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. However, Germaine Greer has pointed out that she has little in common with those dramatic characters besides suicide. At any rate, Louise, the central character of The Enchantment, certainly anticipates those two characters. After indulging in a prolonged love affair in Belle Époque Paris, Louise commits suicide.

At the play’s opening, we meet Louise as she’s recovering from an illness. In the first scene she meets Alland, a sculptor. Louise is a timid innocent, of course, and Alland a libertine, but as the relationship develops we can hardly say that he takes advantage of her. He never pretends that he’ll stay with her. “Show me you are a free woman,” he tells her. She leaves him and returns home, presumably to Sweden, although she refers to the land simply as “this cold place”. But after receiving a note, presumably from Alland (there’s a nice mystery here), she returns to Paris – “for a few days,” she says.

The second act finds them living in Paris nine months later, although not living together. Louise is enjoying the bohemian life with her artist friends, although she herself seems to have no occupation.

Alland tells Louise that he’s leaving for New York. Just as bad, Louise is running out of money, as Emma Bovary did before her in Flaubert’s novel. So she jumps in the river.

Benedictsson shows us that Louise is responsible for her behavior. In the second act, during one of their interminable discussions about romance, Alland tells her “You are teaching me what I have taught you.” Moreover, she’s 32 years old, not a child. And she’s not without wisdom: she tells her brother upon his marriage “Free love isn’t for everyone.”

Louise may be in line with the great tragic female characters of the late 19th century, but this isn’t a very good play. Louise and Alland spend their time talking about free love, and about their relationship specifically. There’s no plot to speak of. The characters are insufficiently particularized. They’re ill-defined because there’s not enough dramatic action.

There is, however, a lot of platitudinous talk about love, with lines like “A lonely woman will age before her time,” and “Love is a fragile flower that needs to be nurtured.”

Ducdame Ensemble (in association with Breukelen stage + Film) has just produced the play at HERE, Off-off-Broadway. The production is nice enough, given the quality of the script. The director and her ensemble present the script well enough, but they don’t compensate for its weaknesses.

The show is directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson in a straightforward style. She shows us that Louise decides her own fate: two or three times during the show, Louise kisses Alland – as opposed to him kissing her. Ms. Atkinson eschews melodrama and has her actors underplay their roles – at the cost of sacrificing some conflict she might have mined from the text.

Louise is played by Fiona Mongillo. She’s serviceable and expressive, but she never really makes us care much about Louise. Neither she nor her director show express Louise’ transformation from innocent to a woman of the world.

The role of Alland isn’t very interesting – the character never changes. Matthew DeCapua is solid enough in the part, but, like Ms. Mongillo, never captures our imagination. 

The best performance of the production is given by Jane May in the role of Erna, a sculptress who has a history with Alland and who is suited to the bohemian life. She warns Louise about Alland, and scolds her about her financial habits. She also cares for her own sister. Ms. May gives us a mature, layered performance. Erna is harsh and controlling because of her sense of responsibility for those she loves. At heart, she’s caring.

The translation is faulty. The characters speak generally without contractions. But they’re inconsistent: sometimes they do use contractions. And at one point Alland, for all this formal speech, says “You and me will never be as before.”

And so The Enchantment is an interesting production, but interesting only to academics. Ducdame Ensemble is an able company who need to be more selective about their material.

Review
Steve Capra
July 2017

Friday, July 7, 2017

Bastard Jones


Bastard Jones, produced off-Broadway by the cell, is a musical adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. Fielding’s title character, of course, is a good-natured libertine, the sex addict who falls in love with the nice girl, Sophia. The plot, which is convoluted even in this pared-down adaptation, is of no particular importance. It just concerns Tom’s sexual adventures. He’s banished and nearly executed for his ill-considered lifestyle. At the end, of course, he wins the virtuous Sophia. The novel was such a scandal that the Bishop of London claimed that its publication caused the Great earthquake of 1850.

The lengthy novel has been trimmed to accommodate a cast of nine, with most actors playing multiple roles. The title role is played by Evan Ruggiero, who is an amputee. He performs wearing a wooden prosthetic leg which he puts on during the first scene. The show is in no way apologetic about the prosthetic. At one point a character makes a joke of it, using it as a mike. It’s great to see disability treated with such unabashed frankness.

Indeed, the premise of the production is difference. The cast is racially inclusive and one actress is legally blind (although we’d never know that by watching her performance).

The show is delightful, thanks mostly to the talents of its director and cast. The book is merely solid and the songs – mostly in the pop vein – are pleasant if unmemorable. Director Marc Acito keeps it all zipping along allegro. He works on a small stage with a balcony, but he keeps the tone of a full-bodied musical, with meticulous joyousness.

This is an honest sex farce that makes its point through its flippancy. To quote from the script: “The world would be a better place if the keepers of morality kept it to themselves.”

In the title role, Mr. Ruggiero’s performance is very good, standard musical theater; he’s limited by a role that’s not well developed for a lead. Elena Wang is absolutely terrific as the virtuous Sophia. She gives the character complexity, and when she sings she raises her arms up to her shoulders without looking ridiculous. Rene Ruiz plays Tom’s companion as well as the show’s narrator, and his work is great from the moment he opens with “Greetings!” Crystal Lucas-Perry is marvelous as the aristocrat who keeps Tom as her concubine. The other cast members are no less pleasing.

Bastard Jones is obscene without being vulgar, two-and-a-half hours of great fun. The book is by Marc Acito, the music is by Amy Engelhardt, and they collaborated on the lyrics. Their characters need to be further developed, given contradictions and complexity, without lengthening the show. But the production is nonetheless a success. What’s more, its proceeds benefit Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Fund, which serves homeless LGBT youth. Good for the cell!

Review
Steve Capra
July 2017

Thursday, July 6, 2017

(Not) Water


For the first hour or so of (Not) Water, the audience sits in a large circle in a very large room. The actors present, in a disjointed flow, vignettes representing the process that led to the production. We meet the artists and watch some fictitious scenes and hear some stories, even some stand-up. The show, we learn, was conceived in 2006, and following years are marked by climate events – a 2007 flood in India, a 2008 snowfall in Baghdad, Hurricane Sandy. There’s a song about a mop – “The mop cleans everything, but no one cleans the mop” – that’s clever if rather off the point.

So far, the show is intriguing but uneven. Then the lights go out, and we’re told to evacuate the theater. Hurricane Gwyneth (a fictitious hurricane) has caused a power outage. We leave the theater, staying in the building, and we’re ushered into a small space with a single actor, and for about a half-hour he delivers a monologue. The actor – a terrific actor – is Mike Shapiro. He’s playing a man who’s been hunkered down since the disaster – the hurricane – hit the city. The rats have drowned.

The character – listed in the program as Crafty Cook – tells us about his mental health (or illness), his taking drugs, and his setting up a food business, and he feeds some of us a bit. It’s well written and interesting, but what’s important is Mr. Shapiro’s performance. His emotional flow is subtle, his relationship to us is clear, he never falls into cliché. It’s great work!

A few audience members are ushered into another room – a bathroom, actually – to hear another monologue. Originally, the audience was meant to be divided in half, but the logistics of the space prevented this.

At the end of the monologue we’re led back into the large space, which has been redesigned. We spend quite a while under the sort of canopy that’s suspended from the ceiling representing water. Most people are lying down on small air rafts. There are ambient music and sound effects, and it’s all a lovely, peaceful tribute to H2O, although it goes on rather too long.

Before the show we wrote notes about our experiences with water and gave the papers to the staff. Now, at the end of the show, these notes are distributed and some members of the audience read them aloud. It’s clever.

Early in the show, one of the performers says “We’re not just making pretty things here. We want to motivate people to act.” We don’t really feel motivated to act when we leave. The show was too fragmented to do that, and the final segment was too pleasant. Disunity, in fact, is the production’s strength. The various moments we’ve enjoyed contrast in a way that sharpens the experiences. We’ve seen some very creative work.

(Not) Water – a cryptic name – is part of a month-long inter-disciplinary event focused on water called Works on Water, at 3D Technology Center. The stage show is presented by New Georges with 3D Technology Center in collaboration with Guerilla Science. It was written by Sheila Callaghan and directed by Daniella Topol. The large space is turned from a gallery into a performance space just before the show, and we enjoy seeing what remains of the installation outside the circle of audience – videos on the walls, and canoes hanging from the ceiling. A marvelous use of space.

Review
Steve Capra
June 2017