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

Sunday, March 18, 2018


photo: Carol Rosegg

Sam Graber’s skillfully written play SHOOTER is a study of “a pre-emptive shooting massacre”. Jim has shot to death a would-be mass killer and seriously wounded a student in order to prevent the killer from “shooting up a high school”. We learn this through well-placed delayed exposition after meeting Jim and his attorney - an old buddy - in the first scene. Most of the play consists of flashbacks. Its scenes fill in the back story and relate the circumstances that lead to Jim’s preoccupation with his handgun. 

Jim’s wife and daughter have left him and he’s lost his job. He’s been abandoned by his higher-achieving pals. He’s drifted - for unspecific reasons - into a gun training class where the instructor, Troy, tells him “This place is for joyless fanatics.” Troy refers to a gun saying “What this is is purpose,” and he tells Jim “Once you belong, a man could get back to whatever he feels he’s lost.”

Jim is so ill-at-ease on the shooting rage that Troy nearly dismisses him, but upon his first shot Jim experiences a rush of excitement that carries him through to the shooting at the school.

Also present in the class is a young man named Gavin. “You think you’re a man right now but you don’t realize you have to fight for it” Jim tells him paternally.

SHOOTER explores toxic masculinity, and this production - from ManyTracks at TheaterLab - is drenched in testosterone. It’s all-male cast of five deftly present male consciousness and male relationships.  David Perez-Ribada and C.K. Allen play Jim’s two ex-buddies who come back to support him through a vestige of male bonding, and their acting is clear and well-wrought. Michael Gnat, as well, gives us deft work in the role of Troy, the hyper-macho gun professional who’s not interested in friendship. Nicholas Tyler-Corbin plays the strange Gavin with silent fervor. He doesn’t need lines to act.

Ean Sheehy gives a terrific performance as Jim, exposing the character’s journey with focus and clarity. Sometimes he mutters and rushes his lines nervously in a way that would be annoying if he were less convincing but that works deftly for the character. “I was a monument. I was a mountain. I was  planet,” he mumbles recalling the shooting in a stunning monologue. 

Katrin Hilbe directs the show meticulously, on a bare stage screaming with violent white walls and floor. She presents Jim under a theatrical microscope but the presentation never looks forced.

However, both the playwright and the director overdo the intensity. Shakespeare gave us the Porter at hell-gate speech in order to give us a contrast to the Scottish play’s murderous tone. It cleanses our brain for the horrors to follow. Mr. Graber gives us no such relief in this script. What’s more, there’s a bar scene in which Jim’s buddy indulges in some superfluous philosophizing.

And Ms. Hilbe keeps her actors at the peak of intensity throughout the play, particularly allowing Mr. Ribada to overplay the loyal attorney. It’s like a concert entirely fortissimo, and we’d appreciate an occassional passage piano

In 1836 Georg B├╝chner wrote the play Woyzeck exploring the dehumanizing pressures leading the title character to murder. It’s great to find Mr. Graber examining the same subject in SHOOTER for the contemporary audience, and in such an adroit production.


Steve Capra
March 2018

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Extreme Whether

photo by Beatriz Schiller

Karen Malpede’s play Extreme Whether, presented by Theater Three Collaborative at La MaMa, describes itself as “a Cli-Fi drama.” Its concern is climate change, and it explores the issue through a family drama. John is a climate scientist, Rebecca West his live-in colleague. Living with them are his 13-year-old daughter and an older gentleman called Uncle. John’s sister, Jeanne, and her husband, Frank, are visitors. The home is on protected land that John and Jeanne have inherited.

Needless to say, the characters of the climate scientists and the resistance they encounter refer to actual people and events. The character of John is particularly based on Dr. James Hansen, who warned Congress against global warming in 1988.

Ms. Malpede manages both to create both a moving family drama and to make a social statement in the vein of Ibsen. John and Rebecca, of course, are trying to save the world, and Jeanne and Frank are their avaricious foils. The play’s action is engrossing and its characters vivid, well drawn. It uses personal characteristics - sibling rivalry, lust, greed - as elements of a dramatic social metaphor. But the structure suffers by a climactic event for which we are totally unprepared.

Sometimes the characters philosophize with an lyrical artificial speech that suggests Chekhov’s stylized naturalism. Jeanne describes a moment “as if our whole lives had slipped past” Indeed, when they speak of the degradation of their land, we might be watching The Cherry Orchard. “This part of the land will never be touched - I can promise you that,” Jeanne says ominously.

Sometimes, however, the artificiality is intrusive - as in “You will be working and I shall, too, through the night.” Moreover, sometimes exposition intrudes on the characters speech and they explain themselves for our sake.

But it’s Ibsen, not Chekhov, who stands behind this problem play designed in his style. Ibsen is never far away from Extreme Whether. As in Ibsen’s plays, the script has little concern for life beyond its central idea. And as in Ibsen’s plays, the past returns to haunt the characters. What’s more, there are several specific references to Rosmersholm. The most obvious is the central character’s name: Rebecca West is also the central character in Rosmersholm. There are other references to Ibsen’s play as well, including John’s name corresponding to Ibsen’s “Johannes”  and a passing reference to jumping of a bridge. Even the costume designers, Sally Ann Parsons and Carisa Kelly, allude to Ibsen in Rebecca’s frumpy dress, an reference to the dressing gown that Ibsen’s Rebecca scandalously wears in the presence of a man not her husband in Rosmersholm.

Ms. Malpede also directs. As playwright and director, she never dwells and never rushes. She is never sentimental, even at a frog’s funeral. In the show’s most lyrical moment, her actors lie on the ground in the form of a star, enjoying the stars above. However, she’s directed her actors to speak in a tone that sometimes falls into the declamatory and inhibits intimacy. And it’s very odd that John’s daughter remains apparently 13-years-old even after eight years have passed.

The cast is uniformly first-rate. The best performance belongs to Khris Lewin as Jeanne’s husband; he manages to be at once hateful and believable. Rocco Sisto as John and Clea Straus Rivera as Rebecca are very good, despite their overstressing their lines. George Bartenieff as Uncle is irresistible, recognizable without being a familiar, reminding us of Firs in The Cherry Orchard. Emma Rose Kraus plays the ageless child and Dee Pelletier plays Jeanne Jeanne, both giving very satisfying performances.

The production is graced by Gian Marco Lo Forte’s lovely set, five free-hanging panels of treetops.

Whatever the production’s weaknesses, Ms, Malpede and the company are to be congratulated. Extreme Whether succeeds in dramatizing an issue without being preachy. John sums up our predicament when he says “What can we do but to continue to describe our demise?” But Ms. Malpede gives us hope in the play’s final segment, the Epilogue, and looks to the future.

Steve Capra

March 2018

Friday, February 23, 2018

Fusiform Gyrus

photo: Suzanne Opton

The pre-show of Fusiform Gyrus consists of a grey-haired man at a desk, with his head lowered. There’s a black back wall, which turns out to be a scrim, with some scientific names for beasts written on it - thamnophis sirtalis, phengaris arion… Fusiform Gyrus, the program tells us, is “a region in the brain that lights up with activity during brain imaging when people describe, and give names to living things.”

At the show start, a second grey-haired man enters, and the two men, equally tall, laugh for no reason. It’s a fitting opening for Talking Band's good-natured, inscrutable production of this script by Ellen Maddow.

The company consist of the two actors and five musicians (trombone, tuba, trumpet and two saxophones). From time to time the brass band plays, merrily at first and cacophonously or whisperingly later in the show. Late in the show there are little lights round the bells of the instruments.

There’s no plot; these aren’t dramatic characters. They’re more like intellectual hallucinations. One is an “alpha taxonomist”, the other an entomologist who’s “decided to live his life inside a Russian novel.” They talk all the time, sometimes to one another, sometimes to us, and they watch a video of two people having a conversation in a breakfast nook. But the characters in the video can’t be heard, and the on-stage characters speak their words. They also sort of sing and dance a bit.

They don’t talk about anything in particular for very long. Sometimes they tell stories, and they talk about the woman who appears in the video. But the fact of their talking, their very conviviality, is more important that anything they might talk about. There’s a bit of dramatic action when Dr. Decker (the taxonomist) talks to us about Mr. Grey (the entomologist-turned-man-of-letters) and Mr. Grey storms off in a huff. “This is a moment without a name,” Dr. Decker says. But the rift doesn’t last long and Mr. Grey returns. They tell us the key (the key to what?) is in the bell of the slide trombone, but when Dr. Decker reaches into it he pulls out a flash drive.

This is very Carrollian nonsense, and it’s entertaining. But unlike the Alice stories, it’s opaque and abstruse. If it means anything, Ms. Maddow doesn’t let us in on the secret.

The show is buoyed up by the talents of its two actors, Tom Nelis and Paul Zimet, who animate this dramatic void with unflagging emotional and physical life. They’re matching wits, recognizable as the smart academics we’ve all known. Ellie Heyman’s direction keeps everything moving along allegretto and precisely controlled. 

In its stasis, its disdain of narrative, its loopy characters, Fusiform Gyrus is influenced by - not to say imitative of - the work of Richard Foreman. Even the band reminds us of the prancing gnomes and musical loops that some of his work had. However, it fails to leave us with the inexplicably refreshed feeling Mr. Foreman’s work has. He called his own work “a complex and dazzling object observable under glass”. Fusiform Gyrus fails to dazzle, partly because it’s not particularly complex. Ms. Maddow, like all of us, hasn’t guessed Mr. Foreman’s secret.

Fusiform Gyrus runs only about 70 minutes, and its brevity is part of its wit; we couldn’t handle any more. “Our brains are unreliable,” Mr. Grey has told us, so perhaps it’s best not to try to understand the play’s mysteries.

Steve Capra
February 2018

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Prelude to the Apocalypse

Prelude to the Apocalypse is an hour-long solo show written and performed by Blake Sugarman and presented by La MaMa. Mr Sugarman talks to us about the environmental crisis, and for the first half-hour or so, he remains seated behind a desk, speaking (and this is ill-advised) into a microphone. There’s an hourglass on the desk, and its live image is projected on the back wall. There’s a large, handsome pile of trash bags upstage as well.

“Once upon a time on a planet called Earth…” he opens, and proceeds to discuss the extinction of the dinosaurs, Jesus and Peter Pan, children at Dachau, mountain top removal and other issues that relate loosely, often poetically, to his subject. 

About halfway through the show he tells us that President Trump cited climate change in a request for legal permission to build a sea wall at his golf course in Ireland (!). The thought makes Mr. Sugarman jump to his feet and yell “What is going on?” It’s a genuine dramatic climax. Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man plays while Mr. Sugarman (who is indeed a thin young man) sort of taps and sort of runs around the stage and - in the show’s best moment - hides briefly behind the desk.

For nearly the rest of the show he’s in the audience. “Penny for your thoughts” he says, and successfully elicits comments from the us.

Finally, as a sort of coda, our monologist looks to the future. He tells us a Buddhist joke about a farmer whose horse is stolen. When a neighbor comments on what a misfortune that is, the farmer replies “We’ll see.” With rather more conviction, Mr. Sugarman talks about “changing the culture and building a movement” and tells us “It’s up to us to figure it out.”

The script is clever and enjoyable but it lacks a unifying metaphor. The show succeeds through Mr. Sugarman’s youthful - he’s about 26 - charm. This is why he’s most appealing when he’s in the audience talking to us. We can’t help liking him, and liking the performer is what a solo show is all about. 

The show is very well directed by Jacob Sexton, who ensures that is has variety. He’s wisely chosen to remain hidden and to let Mr. Sugarman have his way. 

Still, charm only gets Mr. Sugarman so far. His callow youth is both his strength and his limitation. He’s simply too young to deliver lines like “It’s important to be present but we must also be wise,” believably.

Prelude to the Apocalypse is agreeable if unimportant. I’m sure that Blake Sugarman will develop into a first-rate monologuist when he writes pithier material more appropriate for himself.

Steve Capra

February 2018

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Or Current Resident

photo by Jonathan Slaff

Naturalism isn’t my favorite style, but with theaters trying to outdo each other to be avant-garde, it’s refreshing to find a conventional, naturalistic production of a new script. I speak of Squeaky Bicycle Productions’ production of Or Current Resident, by Joan Bigwood, presented at The Theater for the New City. It’s squarely in the tradition of the American drama’s theme of family. From Eugene O’Neill, through Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, to Sam Shepard, American playwrights have been obsessed with family.

And naturalism this is, with a set with walls, presenting the common room - a combination living room and kitchen - of a lower middle class home, very nicely designed by Meg McGuin. 

The family in this play is the Finch’s. Mimi, the grandmother, lives with her two daughters and twin grandchildren in “a small and crowded space”. Her son, Ted, comes to live with them after a lengthy prison term. Granddad’s interred in the back yard, present but absent. 

The plot, such a it is, concerns Ted’s re-assimilation into the family, the daughter’s online search for romance, and the girl twin’s obsession with an off-stage boy. In fact, the playwright has learned from Chekhov (particularly from Three Sisters) to give the play multiple plots. The threatened eviction of the family from the home isn’t exactly a plot element; it’s more of a given circumstance. “What do I always say? We are Finch’s and Finch’s adapt,” Mimi says.

What’s most striking about the script is Ms. Bigwood’s naturalistic dialogue. She’s very skilled at delayed exposition. For the first half of the show, we spend nearly all our concentration extracting information from the dialogue. Indeed, we don’t learn everything we need to know about the family until the end of the play.

What’s more, the playwright imbeds the most significant lines in the conversation with marvelous subtlety. “We can’t decide our own fate. Fate will do it for us,” Mimi says, and Lydia Gladstone delivers the line so naturally that it doesn’t seem intrusive or pretentious.

Ms. Bigwood also touches on another typically American theme, the use of lies to make life tolerable. Ted makes the mistake of telling the twins a family secret and throws them into turmoil. “Is it called a lie when it’s meant to do good?” he says in response to their resentment.

Most of the cast gives us very good work here, particularly Lydia Gladstone in the role of Mimi. “Good Morning, morning glory,” she chirps with forced cheerfulness, the personification of motherhood. Michael Vitaly Sazonov is also outstanding as Ted; he plays the felon with sensitivity and reserve. Curry Whitmire as the boy twin, Krystle N. Adams as his mother and Bettina Goolsby as his aunt also do well. The young actress playing the female twin, unfortunately, is allowed to overdo the hostility and petulance.

Brandi Varnell’s direction is smooth and subtle, seemingly effortless. Her busy blocking has the family jostling around in their cramped apartment. She never dwells and never rushes, and she’s very ably led her cast as an ensemble.

However, there are some problems with the production. First of all, the actors playing the twins are too old to play 16-year-olds. They scarcely look ten years younger than their mother. When the boy reaches manhood - he delivers the last line of the play, “I promise you, I’m on this” - we’re not impressed because we’ve always thought of him as a man. The problem makes it particularly difficult to identify who the people are in this family, on top of the challenge posed by Ms. Bigwood’s dialogue. That this is a common problem - finding actors who can play teenagers - makes it no less annoying.

And some of the actors rush their lines, speaking without deliberacy, swallowing their vowels and gliding over the consonants. They’ve neglected to balance the needs of naturalism with the needs of the listener. The younger actors would do well to take a lesson from their elder, Ms. Gladstone, whose delivery is simultaneously spontaneous and studied.

Ms.Bigwood has peppered the dialogue with humor that saves it from melodrama. Nonetheless, all this unhappiness gets rather oppressive toward the end, what with the neurotic personalities and the vicissitudes of fate. And she gets bogged down in her dialogue in some passages, neglecting dramatic action.

Nonetheless, Squeaky Bicycle has given us a very fine show in Or Current Resident, understated and complex. Good work!

Steve Capra
February 2018