Saturday, July 20, 2019

Baharat at Djam NYC

Djam NYC is a weekly world music (actually, middle Eastern music) event at The Engine Room in NYC. It features Baharat, a Brooklyn-based band, and Bellyqueen, a bellydance company.

Baharat is a four-musician band, and their marvelous Arabic music includes tones and rhythms not found in western music. It centers on Mr. Burdi’s oud, a lovely pear-shaped 12-string instrument with ancient origins, like a lute, that epitomizes the dazzling sound of middle Eastern music. Mr. Burdi told me that it’s more difficult to play than the guitar, and it’s certainly worth the effort. Its glittering timbre, although somewhat acerbic compared to a guitar, is hypnotic.

On percussion, Adam Maalouf plays a riq (a sort of tambourine), a cymbal with holes in it that alter its sound, and a frame drum called a droombek. They give the music a wide rhythmic range. Sometimes he hits the wooden edge of the drum with is hand for even more variety.

The violin, of course, is not an authentic middle Eastern instrument, but it has a long history in the modern age of inclusion in middle Eastern music. In Baharat, Ben Sutin plays it, often doubling with the oud - and that terrific doubling is traditional.

Enrique Mancia plays the bass guitar in the group, and its presence is neither authentic nor expected. I asked Mr. Burdi why he includes it, and he answered “I like rock and roll. Eastern music is missing a bass element.”

As a purist, I disagree. One of the mesmerizing things about Eastern music is that it’s weightless - it floats - and that guitar weighs down Baharat like a ton of hummus.

This music is at its best at its transitions of rhythm and tempo. It’s thrilling to hear Baharat suddenly slow down and then speed up again in a new tempo. I don’t deny that part of this music’s attraction is its novelty - but part of the attraction of Western music is its familiarity.

Bellyqueen, the bellydance troupe, is headed by Kaeshi, and her gracefulness is the visual partner to the bewitching music. All the dancers - the bellydancers and the jazz dancers - enhance this entertaining, informal evening.

Steve Capra

July 2019

A Doll's House: A New Opera

photo by Justin McCallum

Making Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House into an opera is an intriguing project. The play is melodramatic - Ibsen had a long way to go before he freed himself of that weakness - and the emotions and giant and varied, sometimes repressed, sometimes explosive.

You’ll recall that this scandalous play relates the story of how Nora sacrifices herself to save her husband, Torvald, through a minor crime, and is blackmailed by Krogstad. To make a long and convoluted plot short, Torvald finds out, and instead of himself taking blame for the crime, as the naive Nora expected, blows up in a fit of abusive recrimination. Fortunately, Nora’s BFF, Mrs. Linde, convinces Krogstad to forget the whole damn thing, and everything would be fine except that Nora’s going to have no more of this arrangement. She storms out, abandoning her children, famously slamming the door after her. Oh, and Dr. Rank is involved too, adding more to symbolism than to plot. 

This month The Corkscrew Theater Festival is producing a fine opera, A Doll’s House: A New Opera, off-off-Broadway in a small space on East 4th Street. The music and libretto are by Grace Oberhofer and the production is meticulously directed by Allison Benko. We find a pale, bare stage with a single bench center (I suspect this is due to budgetary and space constraints, but, still, it’s the wise choice under the circumstances). The children are represented on the upstage screen as shadow puppets, as is an all-important important letter-box. 

The source material has been cut down to 90 minutes, and the libretto, for the most part, stays close to the source material. The Ibsen scholar will recognize lines about “borrowing and debt” and “How like your father, letting money slip away.”And it’s delicious to hear Torvald call Nora “my singing bird”! 

In fact, the singing is marvelous - Kristin Renee Young and Elijah Graham in the leads, Maria Lacey as Mrs. Linde, Amy Weintraub as Dr. Rank, Scott McCreary as Krogstad (a role George Bernard Shaw played in A Doll’s House in London). 

What’s more, Allison Benko has directed her cast to act as well as to sing. Elijah Graham deftly manages one of the most absurd transitions in the modern dramatic canon when Torvald turns from furious tyrant back to overgrown baby in a moment. Ms. Young can barely tolerate his embrace (“Torvald, you must let me go at once!”), her face registers every emotion, and she dances the tarantella, singing in vocalese, with the requisite desperation. Scott McCreary starts as scowling, swaggering villain, and transitions to smiling nice guy through - what else? - love. It’s no wonder that Mrs. Linde sings after he leaves “What a difference I’m making!” Indeed, the transitions of all the characters have been made clear. Only the world-weary Mrs. Linde seems unaffected by the events of this fateful Christmas.

Ms. Oberhofer has included a wordless dancer in the pivotal scenes. She presumably represents Nora’s inner life, but occasionally Nora or Torvald acknowledge her presence. What does this mean?

The orchestra consists of viola, flute (nice choice), cello and piano. The contemporary music, although I didn’t find it extraordinary, responds to the changing senses of the libretto. It takes on the required silliness when Nora plays the child, and it thunders when Torvald reproaches her with “Do you know what you have done?” The lines are almost always short, with a few short arias, duets and trios and the occasional line a cappella. And the music nearly attacks us when Torvald barks “Look straight” (a line direct from the source material).

The coup de théâtre occurs near the end, when the disillusioned Nora says “Torvald, you and I have much to say to one another.” Before the line, the house lights go up, the music goes silent - and then Nora speaks the line. Brilliant! It was on this line, after all, that modern drama was born, on December 21, 1879, in Copenhagen, at the play’s premiere.

The problem is that Ms. Oberhofer has written the role of Dr. Rank for a woman. For a moment we think the doctor in those pants is a lesbian (the character confesses love for Nora), but the character is referred to in the masculine pronoun. Part of the point of the play is that Nora and Mrs. Linde live in a male-dominated culture, and whatever point Ms. Oberhofer is making, it’s clear only to her.

When Nora walks out at the end of the show, she walks through the audience and bangs the door to the theater. Great idea. She’s followed by the nanny, Mrs. Linde and that inexplicable Dr. Rank.

I’m not sure that Ms. Oberhofer’s music has mined the source play for all it’s worth, and her libretto hasn’t overcome the weaknesses of the Ibsen’s script. We’d need to be familiar with the source material to understand why Nora is doing that famous tarantella (she’s stalling to give Mrs. Linde time to convince Krogstad to relent).

But whatever its shortcomings, A Doll’s House: A New Opera is a success, and we applaud the entire company.

Steve Capra

July 2019

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Afterparty: The Rothko Studio

The future of the theater lies in immersive, site-specific work. The Peculiar Works Project gave us a terrific example of this recently, off-off-Broadway, called Afterparty: The Rothko Studio. It was presented at 22 Bowery. The address is important because the building has housed many artists’ studios - most notably that of Mark Rothko.

We’re an audience of about 25. We’re introduced to the space in the street-level galleries hung with work of contemporary artists, and another with sort of secular altars and a man lying under a small pyramid wearing headphones. We’re in classic New York Bohemia. Then we’re welcomed by an actress in a wild headpiece - I believe the program refers to her as “The Muse” - and ushered into the next room, where we’re entertained by dancers, starting with biomechanics and progressing to interpretive dance.

A host greets us: “Welcome to the Bunker. … This is John’s night. … We wanted to do something special to honor his first show!” Such is the conceit of the evening.

We’re ushered upstairs, past a woman on a swing and up a stairway where an actress reads text I didn’t recognize, to a large room where a woman sings from a balcony and some of the cast sing to the text of A Recipe for a Work of Art, which Rothko wrote in 1958: “There must be clear preoccupation with death…”

And then the pith of the show: we’re guests at a dinner, cold but tasty manicotti which we never get to finish. I was lucky enough to sit between the guest of honor, John, at the head of the table, and, on my other side, none other than Mark Rothko himself, played superbly by Jason Howard.

Besides we audience, there are other artists at table, the actors playing actual people or amalgams of actual people, and one playing an affected art teacher spewing art-speak. The actors are sometimes working with scripted text and sometimes improvising, talking to us as fellow guests. As the conversation develops, Rothko becomes increasingly annoyed with dilettantism, not to mention the food: “I tried to eat that overpriced, pretentious slop.” And much - perhaps all - of Mr. Howard’s scripted dialogue comes from the Mr. Rothko himself. He painted the Seagram murals here, and much of the character’s rant refers to them.

S.M. Dale is credited with the “story” of Afterparty, whatever that means, and it’s directed by Ralph Lewis. This is great work, theater that does what the electronic arts cannot: immerse us in a space, in an event. Let’s hope that the new generation of theater devisers emulate the creative Peculiar Works Project.

Steve Capra

June 2019

Monday, May 27, 2019


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.

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.

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.

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!

Steve Capra

March, 2019