Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Mechanics of Love

Mechanics of Love is a comedy by Dipika Guha, produced by To-By-For Productions. It’s about Glen, husband to Faizi and buddy to Georg, who marries Francesca. It seems that Glen has a condition – he forgets things. And he’s forgotten that he’s married to Faizi. We learn later that this isn’t his first bigamous blunder. “After the fourth wife, I got used to it,” Faizi tells Georg.
But a poor memory doesn’t account for all the play’s romance. Faizi and Francesca fall in love, Georg and Francesca fall in love, Georg and Faizi fall in love… Okay, maybe it’s just lust sometimes, but in short, everyone falls for nearly everyone else, for no reason whatsoever. The mechanics of love, Ms. Guha is telling us, are the mechanics of anarchy. “What if this is all there is?” Francesca says, “No present. No past. No future.” And, for this playwright, no reasons.
Everything in a drama happens for a reason, and that’s why this idea makes a promising premise. It suggests a type of absurdism. But a writer would have to do some pretty handsome playwrighting to make the idea work. Ms. Guha never manages to dramatize her concept. The action of the play is arbitrary and superficial. The characters are never developed and we never grow to care about them.
Glen doesn’t forget about Francesca; she’s cured him of his condition, while contracting it herself. Like the four characters’ emotional forays, there’s no reason for this. And Francesca’s forgetfulness isn’t necessary to explain the fact that she falls for each of the others. Faizi does the same thing, and she’s immune to the disorder.
Sathya Sridharan gives the show’s best performance, as Glen. He analyzes well and expresses a breadth of personality. Eric T. Miller, as Georg, and Victoria Frings, as Faizi, are believable. As Francesca, Anastasia Olowin is limited. All four try hard to be funny and their delivery of their lines is sometimes brainless.
Elena Araoz keeps the show moving allegretto. It speeds by in 90 minutes. She’s keeps her actors in the eternal present, like clowns, just as the playwright indicates. And she keeps the play clear and focused.
But there’s not much a company can do with this script. Ms. Guha has put an interesting conceit on stage, but she hasn’t honed it to suit a drama, even a comedy. Mechanics of Love is a concept thwarted in dramatic execution.
Steve Capra
September 2016

Monday, September 5, 2016

Take One

Take One is a musical presented by The Council of Nine as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. The conceit in Take One is that there were false starts to some noted projects. It’s composed of three vignettes.

The first section, called The Ballad of God, takes inspiration from The Book of Genesis. At its opening, we meet God himself, who sings “I’m gonna make me a world – I’m gonna build me a heaven.” He creates Adam and Eve, who name the animals, but they never eat the apple. And Cain never kills Abel. Having failed in getting them to sin, God decides to start again.

In the second section, The Ludovico Technique, we find Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. “Hour after hour,” he sings in the show’s best song, “I’m creating the power of vision.” He finds a lover in his assistant, Ludovico, but the half-white tones he uses on the ceiling fresco fail to please Pope Julius II. He’s ordered to start again.

The final section, Intervention!, presents Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. There’s a song in the musical Oklahoma that Hammerstein wants to cut. Rodgers resists at first, but finally relents. The section is very clever and it gives us a couple of great scenes, but it’s unclear to anyone not very familiar with Oklahoma.

The book, music and lyrics were written by Jeff Ward. The dialogue is smart, and the songs have some inspired premises and rhymes, with a variety of tone. It’s great fun. But the show lacks a musical leitmotif holding the short plays together, or even a running joke.

Take One is sharply and humorously directed by Michael Schiralli. The cast of seven is first-rate, singing and acting at the same time. It’s good to see a modest musical produced with such skill and precision.

Steve Capra
August 2016

Zuccotti Park

Zuccotti Park opens with a man drumming on a plastic bin. This is a musical set in the turbulent milieu of Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park in New York City. The relationship at its core concerns Cooper and Kate, both from Rockwell City, Iowa. They haven’t seen each other since high school. She has a Master’s degree from NYU now and works with the Occupy protestors. He served in Afghanistan for eight years and is unsympathetic with the movement. They’ve agreed to meet again in New York.

The story is about Cooper’s movement toward sympathy with the demonstrators. When a protestor sings “I see storm clouds over America,” Cooper responds “The storm of terrorism!” His conversion is gradual. “What if those Occupy folks are right?” he says as his conservatism wavers. His conversion is furthered at a job interview, when he’s told that the position has been filled and he should apply for a maintenance position. As a veteran, he responds, “I should be able to do a lot better than a janitor.” The role is ably played, with nuance, by Ryan Neal Green.

Towards the play’s closing we’re presented with the eviction of the protestors from the park. The event crystallizes Cooper’s thinking. In the next scene, Cooper tells a young boy “No one’s read the directions.” He then reads from a copy of the Declaration of Independence that Kate has given him.

The character of Kate is never adequately developed. A sketchy character, she never changes in the play. We never come to care about her or her relationship with Cooper. And some details of their story are unclear. Chelsea Rose Amoroso does the best she can as Kate, but she’s given little to work with.

Aside from Cooper and Kate, we meet characters in passing, and the settings change. One couple meets with their bankers to take out a mortgage. A man out of work finds that his wife is leaving him. A wealthy man teaches his daughter about the economic system in a clever song referencing fractional reserve banking and The Federal Reserve Act. But these scenes are never developed into subplots; they’re merely snapshots.

The songs are suitably varied, but the dialogue is merely adequate. The book and lyrics were written by Catherine Hurd. The music and additional lyrics were written by Vatrena King.

It’s all very clearly and precisely directed and choreographed by Luis Salgado. Chaotic crowd scenes in plays like this one are often directed – blocked – carelessly. But Mr. Salgado is meticulous, creating a series of clean, expressive stage pictures. He creates a great tension when the police approach the demonstrators to clear the park. What’s more, he’s had the inspired idea of mixing the cast with the audience before each act, pulling us into the scene.

Zuccotti Park calls itself “a musical about the human side of economics.” It is indeed an interesting concept, but the script disappoints. Fortunately, the show is very well executed. It’s presented by Salgado Productions as part of The New York International Fringe Festival.

Steve Capra
August 2016

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