Monday, May 27, 2019

Bucolic


A show called Bucolic was presented this month by Maul Face LLC in Judson Memorial Church in Washington Square. The promotion calls it a “immersive dark comedic musical”, and the website calls it a “dark comedy musical”. It’s not a musical. It’s a musical review with six performers or, as the website also calls it, “a good-natured stand-up act.”

At opening a priest enters through the audience and tells us “Sit. down! Quiet down! Here it is - your senior year!” We are, for the moment, in a Catholic high school in a small Nebraska town. And I suppose that by the standards of a small Nebraska town, the show’s pretty good.

The prime mover, who created and composed the show, is Lauren Maul. She addresses us with an amiable, relaxed stage presence. She also sings and plays the piano for the other singers. The premise is that her unnamed home town in Nebraska was rife with murders, and the show has a mild, delightful, macabre humor as she and her cast relate through song and narration the stories of small town crime.

Some of the songs are clever. The priest, addressing his senior class, sings “Some of you will die - Well, all of you will die - But some of you will die this year.” And there’s precisely one touching lyric, when an actress sings of a grieving woman: “I wonder what she does with her days.” But most of the songs sound alike, with short, flippant, repetitive lines.

In the show’s most creative moment, we see some lovely shadow puppets of wolves. In another nice moment, Ms. Maul points out that The Church doesn’t believe in psychics, but it does believe in prophets - after all, psychics are women and prophets are men.

I’d like to be generous to this likable troupe, but the fact is that between the lot of them they’ve never had a voice lesson. And for all their amiability, they lack stage authority. What’s more, Ms. Maul should know better than to give the audience even small glasses of Scotch. It’s a nice idea, but some people are in recovery.

I’d like to see what Ms. Maul produced in a few years.

review
Steve Capra

May 2019

Friday, May 17, 2019

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

Cooper Bates photography

What a terrific performance Burt Grinstead gives us as the eponymic characters - character - in Blanket Fort Entertainment’s production of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde! The show is a 70-minute-long adaptation of Robert Louis Stephenson’s famous 1886 book Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It’s played exclusively for laughs, and Mr. Grinstead is a marvel of a comic actor. As the good Dr Jekyll he pushes his hair back, cleans his glasses and lets his voice break. As the evil, cruel, malignant, hateful, reprehensible Mr. Hyde he sticks his tongue out, growls and lets his hat fall over his eyes so that we never really see his face. “This is freedom, Jekyll, freedom!” he cackles, dripping with camp villainy. And “If a man wants to kill, he should kill - shouldn’t he?.” He menaces the audience as he whooshes up the aisle.

He has a worthy partner in Anna Stromberg, the only other performer. She plays no less than 14 roles (okay, some of them only a few lines) including Poole (the doctor’s faithful servant who warns him against you-know-whom), a lawyer, Sarah (the love interest), Sarah’s gentleman father, an academic, a cop… The characters have various English dialects as class demands, one or two so muddled that we can’t understand the words. Marvelous! She has the a comic flair in precisely the same idiom as the jeune premier.

Ms. Stromberg herself directs the piece, without a moment’s falter. This is quite a feat considering that she’s directing herself in a role that demands precise timing and parody. She gives the show both humor and dramatic tension, with Mr. Grinstead facing front as often as not. When Jekyll drinks that ungodly potion, Ms. Stromberg silhouettes him. And then he throws himself around as if he’s receiving body blows from an invisible assailant. Great work!

The back wall has an evocative silhouette of the London skyline. The single set piece is versatile but uninspired.

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde has been appearing at The Soho Playhouse. I’ll be at the next Blanket Fort Entertainment production wherever it is.

review
Steve Capra
May 2019

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Chinese Fringe Theater Festival

La MaMa has presented a marvelous Chinese Fringe Theater Festival, consisting of three productions from China. The first, The Dictionary of Soul, is produced by The Physical Guerrillas and directed by Li Ning, and it’s eerie. The set consists of metal shelving, six shelves high. 10 actors in drab uniforms enter, and for more than an hour and a half they present us with an industrial dystopia, wordlessly. They work resignedly at their jobs scrubbing bricks - the sound is spooky - and after a while some of the become machines themselves. Someone rebels briefly, but goes back to work. They sleep on the shelves and the superintendent throws bricks at them to wake them. In their silence, each one is alone working at his pointless task.

The second half of the play, however, is redemptive. It’s more abstract than the first, with ritualistic movement including a death and a cleansing ceremony of pouring milk on the body. Finally the cast place the bricks in a neat pile and one by one - very slowly - the actors cross it and are reborn. Li Ning bases his work on Tao, and this is a mystical production accessible to any audience. Brilliant!

The second production, Two Dogs, is produced by Meng Theater Studio and directed by Meng Jinghui, performed in Chinese (with surtitles) by two actors. We don’t need to speak Chinese to know that this is comedy - its rhythm, its subtle, comic physicalization is universal, suggesting the Marx Brothers. The rambling plot concerns two young men from the country throwing themselves at city life - going to prison, getting jobs… The tone is sometimes mock lyricism, sometimes mock melodrama, sometimes cartoon. The actors frequently address us - eg, “This is when I do my interior monologue. I am an idealist.” There’s traditional music and rock music, and the two actors play guitar and drums. Great!

If the above two productions have a universal idiom, the third, The Story of Xiaoyi, is unique - I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s a cross between entertainment and training for social workers. It calls itself “psychodrama”, although it doesn’t meet the definition we have for the term, and it “aims to promote the general welfare of Chinese society.”

Produced by Shanghai Huidiji Public Psychological Care Center and directed by Sun Xinlan and Wu Gang, The Story of Xiaoyi concerns the children who’ve been “left behind” in their home towns when their parents migrate to the city for employment. Actors play these children and their family - based on actual cases - while other performers are actual helping professionals. These latter, however, are not always in the fiction - they address us as actual people before they enter the scene, and explain the challenges these poor kids pose to human service professionals. When they enter the scene, we see their interviews - or therapy sessions - with the family. One volunteer has the family has hug each other and say “I love you.” It’s a sober landscape for a professional: speaking of the Chinese people, a social worker tells us “They are not very familiar with the concept of mental health.” In a sense, these people/characters, who live in two realities, are a sort of Greek chorus, guiding us through the fiction thematically. Fascinating!

And so The Chinese Fringe Theater Festival is an enormous success - another unique offering from the ever-creative La MaMa.

review
Steve Capra

February, 2019

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Healing Journeys with the Black Madonna

photo by Jonathan Slaff

The Black Madonna is the Goddess, also interpreted as Earth Mother or the Christin Madonna. Her worship dates from pre-Christian rituals. Alessandra Belloni has studied the current rituals in Italy and created a wonderful concert of music and dance presented by The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in a side chapel (a side chapel in this huge, magnificent building is the size of a church somewhere else).

From the opening song, a traditional chant for The Madonna of Seminara from Calabria which Ms. Belloni sings accompanied only by a flute, to the last, a song that she wrote herself in praise of the moon goddess, we find an astonishing variety of emotion, tone and rhythm. There’s a healing chant, ritual drumming, a medieval prayer - even a chant to the Orisha goddess of Love and the Sea from the Afro-Brazilian Yoruba tradition.

Ms. Belloni takes the lead vocals. Her middle and upper registers are rich and expressive. At its best, her upper register and sweet and clear, but she’s not as comfortable up there. She’s aided by five performers. Two sing and three dance, and all play instruments: clarinet; flute; saxophone; a guitar; violins. Most interestingly, Kevin Nathaniel plays the mbira (a kalimba in a bowl) and the percussion shekere (a gourd with beads woven around it).

And the dancing! It’s sometimes familiar, graceful folk-jazz, but at other times it’s almost savage, like the choreography of Le Sacre du printemps: dancers kneel in the center aisle of the chapel and flail their arms above them. At one point a pair of them hook knees.

It’s all lovely to look at: the dancers in purple, white or red; Ms. Belloni herelf, a striking woman with long black hair, in a full blue dress and a print shawl, playing a tabor with a portrait painted on it.

The evening was marred only by the sound system. Combined with the high-ceilinged Gothic room, it served not only to amplify but to distort as well. Couldn’t we enjoy the music as our ancestors did for a millennium, with the natural echoes of the cathedral?

But no matter. When the performers and the audience sang, a cappella, “Ave, Ave, Ave Maria,” we couldn’t have been happier.

And thanks to St. John’s for allowing this largely heathen program!

review
Steve Capra

March, 2019

Sunday, February 17, 2019

A Man for All Seasons


A Man for All Seasons is Robert Bolt’s play about Sir Thomas More, the Chancellor of England who stubbornly refused to approve of King Henry VIII’s decision to divorce his wife (first of eight), Katherine of Aragon, so that he could marry… um, which one was it… Anne Boleyn. He was summarily executed. The good King, of course, severed ties with The Mother Church - as Pope Clement VII refused to grant him the divorce - and established The Church of England.

Bolt has made Thomas a modest hero, a hero for modern times. He is a far reach from St. Joan, who said at her trial “Take care what you do, for in truth I am sent by God, and you put yourself in grave danger.” No, Saint Thomas More (he was eventually canonized) keeps his opinions to himself. He tries to avoid the King’s wrath through obsequience - “I am sick to think how much I must displease your grace” - and silence - “Silence is not denial and for my silence I am punished with imprisonment.” Still, discretion does him no good, and he was beheaded in 1535.

If Thomas lacks Joan’s sense of mission, he is in another way ego-centered: “What matters to me is not whether it’s true or not but whether I believe it.” The play is lean, with no sub-plots, no concern with anything but the fate that drives Thomas to his death.

One of my favorite theater companies, Fellowship for Performing Arts, is producing the play, directed by Christa Scott-Reed. Its lead actor, Michael Countryman, has the perfect air of resignation throughout; his worried, bland face convinces us that he knows, despite his denial, that there’s no escape.

The actors are all very good, precise and commanding. However. Ms. Scott-Reed directs them, Thomas and his daughter aside, to yell - no, to bark - virtually every line, and the performance lacks subtlety. This is a hyper-masculine, aggressive interpretation. Even Thomas’ wife is played as a braying harridan. One might think that Thomas would welcome the headsman just to be quit of her. Ms. Scott-Reed is stressing conflict, but the price she pays is huge.

There is precisely one delicate moment, the silence when Thomas’ wife leaves him for the last time, in prison, knowing she won’t see him again. It is very welcome. When the King’s chief minister decides to allow her to visit him in prison so that they’ll persuade him to yield, he says “We have to find a gentler way.” Quite true.

Still, I’m looking forward to more from Fellowship for Performing Arts. They produce theater from a genuine Christian worldview. It is very welcome.

review
Steve Capra
February 2019

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Bleach



Bleach is an extended monologue by Dan Ireland-Reeves, presented by Spin Cycle. It presents a likable male prostitute, Tyler, addressing us, and it’s set in his apartment. It’s been performed in Europe, proscenium-style. Here in New York, director Zack Carey immerses the audience in Tyler’s world, inviting us into Tyler’s apartment. Very smart indeed, well suited to the material. Tyler’s home radiates poverty, but more strongly neglect.

Tyler lives in a dumpy basement apartment in Brooklyn, and indeed we travel to a dumpy basement apartment in Brooklyn to see the show, and we spend its 75-minute duration sitting in Tyler’s bedroom. Instead of a lobby, we enter a small,  dumpy kitchen; the bedroom, the performance space, is in the next room.

Joyce Hahn’s set is terrific: a bed; a few arm chairs and sofas for the audience. We the audience totaled six the night I attended; it doesn’t look like the room could sit more than eight of us. The walls are brick or stone, the stone painted white like the apartment of Tyler’s wealthy client. Half the floor is linoleum, and there’s a cheap, ornate coffee table. The window looks out on the hallway in the basement, with its stone walls: there’s no escape from this life. Handcuffs and a dog collar are hanging from the night table: there’s no escape from this job.

Much to the company’s credit, they’ve declined to provide a program. This is a sort of meta-naturalism

The script at first seems predictable to an experienced NYC fringe audience, but it turns into something more interesting and creative than we expect. We learn about a horrendous event - Tyler calls it “the event” - and from then on we’re in a complex psychological space. The issue is Tyler’s reaction to the event, and it’s the reaction of a rent boy: “I’m so disconnected from it all that it doesn’t matter.”

Mr. Carey’s direction is delicate, meticulous, never heavy-handed or obvious. The play, the night I saw it, is performed by Eamon Yates. He is never false (in this proximity, a falsehood would be fatal). He has great relaxation and concentration - and bravery to look us in the eye sitting next to us. However, he does not have emotional range or depth. He is perhaps too young.  

Of course, Mr. Ireland-Reeves does have Tyler tell us, at the play’s end, “I’m an object - I don’t have to feel,” so the actor doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to show us Tyler’s inner life. But still, calm and intact should not play the same as calm and broken. The performance needs to be layered. Tyler has a couple of moments that could be revelatory. Early in the play, he tells us that he’s taking viagra with him to a client’s home “to make me hard”; late in the show, he tells us that he’s packing it “because you disgust me.” Mr. Carey has not led his actor to make the most of this.

Be that as it may. Bleach is first-rate cutting edge theater. I’ve never felt closer to a character than this hyper-intimate evening. Well done!

review
Steve Capra

Feburary 2019

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Mortality Machine

photo by Zach Filkoff

The Morality Machine is an immersive theater experience produced by Sinking Ship Creations in association with Acronym Presents and Wildrence at the space Wildrence near Canal Street. It’s an example of live-action role-play (LARP), a theatrical experience in which the audience participants fully. It’s very influenced by escape rooms and installations like Sleep No More, and it echoes what we called in the 1980’s “audience-activated theater”. There’s hardly any set text in the script, but Ryan Hart is credited for “Written Narrative”, and as far as I can see he’s the Prime Mover.

The premise is this: five years ago, five people died in a medical experiment at the site. Now the families and friends have assembled there to unseal the laboratory and explore the last days of the victims. We the audience are recruited to play the attendees, each of us assigned a character (I participated as the father of a young woman). We’re led into the small, cluttered lab/office where we find lockers, notes, photos, videos and an extremely strange machine with a bed in it, sort of like a rudimentary MRI scanner.

At first the production seems to be merely a sort of immersive Grand-Guignol, but it develops into something more rewarding. Several of my fellow participants in our group of 20 (20 people each night) were familiar with this sort of high concept installation - some were experienced with escape rooms. As a group we searched, watched, drew conclusions, found a couple of hidden keys - and finally someone got into the machine. To tell you more would be spoil this rewarding, and fun, experience.

It’s important that people understand the type of event this is before they attend. It’s a bellwether for 21st-century theater to come, theater that builds on the form’s greatest strength: the physical presence of the participants in the space.

The concept is terrific, and it’s meticulously executed. We hope that the company’s market will grow to include people less educated to the avant-garde. The company has told me that they’re prepared for participant groups less active than mine, but I’d nonetheless like to have seen more preparation and imposed structure. What’s more, there are alternative endings, and I found ours less satisfactory than the ones explained to me.

But The Morality Machine is brilliant. Congratulations to all involved!

review
Steve Capra
January 2019