Saturday, August 20, 2016

Till Birnam Wood...


Till Birnam Wood… is an adaptation of Macbeth presented by John Schultz as part of The New York International Fringe Festival. At the show’s opening actors crawl on to the stage under a curtain. They say “Tis time,” and that’s our cue to put on our blindfolds, which we will keep on for the entire show.

In the darkness, simple sounds like pats on the back, a kiss or the clinking of daggers become utterly eloquent. And the word “Horror”, shouted  out when Duncan’s death is discovered, evokes a deliciously gruesome image.

From time to time the Weird Sisters are heard, panting or whispering eerily under the dialogue, all the more weird for being unseen. And there’s a musical drone under the dialogue sometimes that’s effective, not intrusive.

In less creative hands the result would merely be a sort of living radio, just sound without sight. But Mr. Schultz, who’s directed the show, uses the fact of a shared space with imagination, and the show is absorbing as live theater.

The playing area consists of two narrow corridors forming a cross in the small space. The cross creates four quadrants where the audience sits, the actors gliding among us. The players’ locations take on a heavy artistic heft. Sound is thrown into relief. Sometimes actors move from side to side compulsively. This is so interesting to hear that we don’t care if there’s any dramatic motivation for the movement. Sound that moves is fascinating. It becomes alive.

No one could say this cast holds anything back; the actors deliver their lines with abandon, at the height of intensity. It’s not great Shakespearian interpretation, but it creates a sort of hyperemotionalism that’s right for the concept.

This isn’t a Macbeth for the uninitiated. Without visuals, some passages wouldn’t be clear to anyone who’s not familiar with the play. When Lady Macbeth reads the letter from Macbeth, for example, we can’t see that she’s reading. But this would be the case with a radio production as well, and we wouldn’t have as much fun through radio.

There are even modest special effects. The actors sprinkle water on us at one point and they spread scent at the end of the play.

The play is highly abridged, and Schultz is wise to keep the production short. It lasts scarcely more than an hour. There are 14 characters and eight actors. Still, I’d like to see Schultz’ work enhanced and expanded. It’s great to see such creative work coming from the fringe. After all, experimentation like this is what the fringe does best.

Steve Capra
August 2016

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Coward: a Madcap Fairytale


The Coward: a Madcap Fairytale is produced by The National Theatre of MatMadia and presented as part of The New York International Fringe Festival. It’s created by Maddy Campbell and Matt Phillips. Its subtitle – A Madcap Fairytale – describes it aptly, but it’s also a sort of clown show. We’re presented with a king and queen, a maid who murders the king and a servant dispatched after the maid. There’s lots of blood and vulgarity.

But it’s more complicated than that. Willie, the maid, played by Maddy Campbell, is part monster. It’s a second personality, dissociated from the personality of the maid. Ms. Campbell bounces between the two persona with violent twists of her neck.

It’s all presented in an eccentric and frenetic style. The make-up is elaborate and interesting, a sort of enhanced white-face. And the actors are skilled physically.

This is an interesting concept. The Coward might be successful theater if it were better executed. Unfortunately, the cast disappoints. They deliver their lines with great energy, but without great care. They punch lines and they rush them. They garble lines spasmodically. And it’s all directed without rhythm.

The press material tells us that The Coward is about mental health. This is easy to accept. Being possessed by a monster is a good metaphor for mental illness. But the show is so annoying that we don’t care what the point is. We’re right to be wary of theater that explains itself in its promotion.


But then there’s never a guarantee with theater, and that’s particularly true of the festivals like Fringe NYC, which presents some first-rate theater.



Steve Capra
August 2016

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Legend of Oni


The Legend of Oni is a charming musical from Musical Company OZmate, a company from Takarazuka, Japan. Onis are the Japanese equivalent of ogres. They come to punish us humans when we’ve been bad. They are fearful to behold, and we die if we see the Onis marching. We become Onis when we harbor in our hearts “grudges and anger” (the phrase occurs several times in the play).

The play is set during the Heian period (between 794 to 1185), before the Samurai. The story concerns the nobleman Nagamichi and his two children, his son Ebuki and his daughter Toki. Nagamichi is an Oni in the sense that he has an evil heart, but Ebuki is an Oni in a different sense. He turns into an Oni and lives with them on the mountain. The Onis kidnap Toki and Nagamichi sends a servant to take her home.

The script plays with the idea of Onis and tells us that humans are the true Onis (because we are really the evil ones).

The stage is bare except for small screens upstage that roll as required, but the show is beautiful to see. The costumes are marvelous, many based on kimonos. The Onis themselves are stunning in white costumes with white staffs. The stylized, angular movements are exciting, and the dance, some of it fan dancing, during the songs is great.

This is an all-female company, and casting only actresses contributes to the distance we feel from the piece. There’s no attempt here to make us identify with characters. It’s all as removed from our lives as any myth could be.

The drama is intense. The most positive moment comes from the Onis themselves, when they tell Toki “Enjoy the Oni life!”

The book, music and lyrics are by Naoko Tsujii, who also directed the show very well and with great precision. The show’s strange music and its singing are unremarkable, but we’re very glad that Musical Company OZmate came over. The show is presented as part of The New York International Fringe Festival.

Steve Capra
August 2016

Waiting for Obama


Waiting for Obama is an issue-based play by John Moore, presented as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. It’s produced by Wild Blindness Productions and Bas Bleu Theatre Company from Denver, Colorado. Readers considering seeing Mr. Moore’s play at a later production should be warned that this review contains spoilers.

In this play we meet Hank and his son Peter, who are standing at their respective doors of their “little duplex in the woods outside of Colorado Springs” with their AR-15’s, waiting for President Obama. Hank believes Obama is going to come to take away his guns (they’re on his wall); Peter (who voted for Obama – twice) has invited him. Hank is a standard Fox News redneck; his wife, Martha, is more enlightened. “There’s a drought in this country, Martha,” he tells her, “Freedom is dying of thirst.” We’re guided throughout the show by Benny, Peter’s son, who lives on the roof and addresses us throughout the play.

The action of the play is interrupted several times to report actual shootings. After a few gunshots, Benny reports dates, locations and the number of victims. The device is skillfully executed and works very well. These moments keep the characters grounded in real life and never interrupt the play for long.

As the characters reveal themselves we learn the family’s history. Benny was killed as a baby by a robber, and his mother committed suicide from grief. Peter’s determination to defend his gun rights stems from his feeling that he failed to defend his child. Mr. Moore shows a real understanding of some gun rights advocates here and saves the play from being merely dogmatic. What’s more, he gives Hank some depth of character at the end of the play.

Obama does, in fact, show up, precisely half-way through the play, and he and Hank set out on an articulate debate about gun rights. Benny interrupts them, however, telling us that they’ve cut 432 pages of debate from the script.

And so Mr. Moore weaves his play using several dramatic devises, and using them well. But the play doesn’t have much plot, and we miss it in the first half of the play. Revelations can’t replace action.

Brian Freeland directs the piece, and keeps everything moving along nicely. The actors serve the script well. The prominent performance is Laurence Curry’s marvelous impersonation of President Obama. He’s studied Obama’s speech patterns and delivers his lines with the characteristic educated, gentle, persuasive intonation.

And so FringeNYC continues its role gathering theatrical talent. It’s gathered nearly 200 shows in its twentieth year.

Steve Capra
August 2016

Monday, August 8, 2016

2 by Tennessee Williams


Tennessee Williams’ dialogue is naturalistic inasmuch as we can feel the southern heat in its details. It’s nearly expressionist in its evocativeness. It’s quintessentially American. Williams is served very well in 2 by Tennessee Williams, a pair of Williams’ one-act plays, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton and Kingdom of Earth, produced by Fabco Productions at St. Luke's Theater.

Williams called 27 Wagons Full of Cotton “a Mississippi Delta Comedy”.  It’s comprised mostly of a seduction scene. Jake has burned down Silva’s cotton gin so that Silva has to contract the work ginning out the cotton to him. Left alone with Jake’s wife, Flora, for the afternoon while Jake is doing the work, Silva figures out what Jake has done from things that Flora says. He retaliates by methodically seducing Flora. That evening, when Jake returns and Silva has left, Flora tells Jake that she expects Silva to return with more orders.

Kathryn Luce Garfunkel gives us marvelous work as Flora. Flora is intellectually vapid and temperamentally a child, and not a precocious child. “You’ll have to excuse me from thinking. I’m too lazy,” she says to Silva. She’s hardly puts up resistance to the seduction: “My knees are so weak. They’re like water.” But Williams’ characters are never stereotypes and Ms. Garfunkel succeeds through her own belief in the character. We accept Flora on Williams’ terms because the actress expresses her so honestly. She has a flawless, unaffected acting technique. With little to do in the last scene except give little laughs, she’s totally believable. 

Jake is hardly any brighter than Flora, too dumb to know he’s being deceived, and Mike Keller does a great job portraying him. Justin Holcomb is suitably masterful as Silva.

In Kingdom of Earth (not to be confused with Williams’ full-length play of that name) Lot brings Myrtle, his wife a one day, to his farm where his brother, Chicken, lives. The river is rising and they’re going to have to go up to the roof.  Lot spends the play offstage, upstairs, dying, and Chicken and Myrtle are left to themselves. Chicken convinces Myrtle to tear up her marriage license so that he’ll inherit the farm and Myrtle is happy to do so.

Williams creates a surreal personal landscape in this Mississippi Delta farmhouse. Referring to the low sound of water in flood, Chicken says “If God had a voice, it would sound like that.”

The play works through Williams’ dialogue and the formidable talents of Mike Keller, who plays Chicken,. Through solid analysis and technique he gives us a complex and sympathetic portrayal of this lonely farmer who sees in his brother’s death merely an inheritance. “Chicken is king,” he shouts at the end of the play, after Lot’s death. Judy Jerome is satisfying as Myrtle.

The actors in both plays flourish under the direction of Marilyn Fried. Her direction succeeds in being simultaneously dynamic and subtle. It never calls attention to itself; it serves the playwright.

The company does great and careful work with dialect. The southern accents are a delight to hear.

John Lant’s and Sam Figueira’s set for 27 Wagons consists almost exclusively of a swing large enough for two. The set for Kingdom of Earth, a farmhouse, is more fleshed out, and handsome.

Williams’ attitude toward the seduction of women is unfortunate. Flora tells Silva not to follow her into the house although she has clearly been enjoying the seduction. And Myrtle tells Chicken that when she was younger her employer “took me by force,” yet she developed a romantic relationship with him. For Williams, there’s a fine line between seduction and rape.

Congratulations to Fabco Productions. 2 by Tennessee Williams is a terrific show.

Steve Capra
July 2016

Friday, July 22, 2016

Good


Good
by C.P. Taylor
produced by PTP/NYC [Potomac Theatre Project]
directed by Jim Petosa

C.P. Taylor’s play Good traces events in the life of an ordinary German who becomes an SS officer. It presents John Halder, a professor of literature and a writer, as he loses his self to evil step by step. He never decides to move to an evil personal place; he ends up there through a series of selfish decisions. Mr. Taylor shows how good men become evil through rationalization and denial. Halder betrays his mother, his wife and his friend. He ends up taking orders directly from Eichmann as he’s discharged to inspect the camp at Auschwitz.

Good is a tragedy because Prof. Halder’s fate is as inevitable as Oedipus’ fate. But he’s not a tragic hero because he meets no resistance. The only real conflict in the play occurs when the professor’s Jewish friend, Maurice, tries to convince Halder to help him to escape to Switzerland. Halder refuses.

PTP/NYC [Potomac Theatre Project] has just produced Good off-off-Broadway. It’s a marvelous production, meticulously directed and superbly acted. Jim Petosa has directed his cast to deliver their lines allegro; our ears can hardly keep up. His direction is careful in every detail: there’s a minor character, a Nazi, who makes a right angle when he walks. And there’s a creative use of music under the dialogue.

Michael Kaye gives a precise, studied performance as the professor, with meticulous analysis. Each footstep in Halder’s fall is clear. The first time he says “Heil Hitler” he’s hesitant; the second time he’s more enthusiastic. His Professor Halder evades self-awareness single-mindedly. Mr. Kaye takes a simple line like “I’m fine” and makes it a commitment to denial. Tim Spears plays Maurice with equally deft acting technique. These actors have fluid emotional life and expressive physical life.

We miss a strong plot structure in this play; drama is conflict. But we’re engrossed by the skill of the PTP/NYC company. They’ve given us a fine production.

Steve Capra
July 2016

Monday, July 4, 2016

On the Verge


Eric Overmyer engages in some pretty fancy word play in his 1985 play On the Verge or The Geography of Yearning. The play is a language-based fantasy about three women who travel from 1888 to 1955. They set out from Terre Haute to explore a tropical land called Terra Incognita and they end up at a nightclub in a city called Peligrosa.

The erudite dialogue uses an expansive vocabulary and techniques like alliteration and assonance. It takes a few minutes for our ears to realize the demands that the playwright is making, but when we do it’s fun to meet the challenge. One of the women comments on the linguistic acrobats from time to time in a way suited to the time travelers. “I have seen the future and it is slang,” she says. And Overmyer has some fun when the youngest woman occasionally produces malapropisms and then corrects them. “I am dieting to rock and roll. I mean determined, not dieting,” she says.

Still, clever as it is, the playwright’s word play becomes tedious after a while. Moreover, linguistic fireworks are not enough to make a satisfying play. On the Verge is not a drama. There are events, but they’re episodic. There’s no structured plot, only a story. The three women have no real motivations for their journey and as a result, the characters aren’t sharply defined.

The three women explore the tropics and realize that they’re being projected into the future. By osmosis – to use their own term – they assimilate phrases from the future without necessarily understanding them. And they find artifacts of the future without any explanation for them. An I Like Ike button instills a yearning to meet Ike (they never do).

The Attic Theater Company has just produced the play Off-off-Broadway and Overmyer enjoys a very nice production. The three actresses – Ella Dershowitz, Emily Kitchens and Monette Magrath – give solid performances, reserved without being dull. But they never really succeed in overcoming the weaknesses of the characterizations.

The fourth cast member, William John Austin, the only male actor, is terrific in eight roles. An actor playing several small roles often relies on indications and mannerisms. But Mr. Austin gives an emotionally grounded, natural performance in each role. His characters have specific biographies. His physical life is never false. He’s as believable as a teenage boy as he is as a lounge singer.

All right – one of his characters is an exception. He plays a young yeti the women chance upon. It’s the play’s most fanciful moment.

Laura Braza’s direction is precise and disciplined, never dwelling or rushing. Julia Noulin-Merat’s set makes no attempt to reproduce the jungle the women are exploring. It uses the sort of scaffolding we associate with a rock show. The choice doesn’t make sense since the travelers never break through 1955, but the contrast between the set and Emily Rosenberg’s Victorian costumes expresses the displacement of time travel.

The Attic’s On the Verge is, in the balance, a fine production. It’s an admirable company that chooses such demanding material.

Steve Capra
June 2016