Archive for February, 2009

Theater Review: The Hefner Monologues by John Hefner at the Frigid Festival

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

Every year I look forward to the Frigid Festival, and finally it's here.

That's a lie. In actuality, every year (this is their third) Frigid sneaks up on me, and all of a sudden there are all these interesting little productions happening all at once, and hardly any time to see them. Some are locally grown, but many are touring shows that drift about the continent, attempting to take root at whatever festivals they can get into. (A bit like bands, come to think of it). If I had no other responsibilities, I'd take the 12 days off and just hang around the East Village going from one Frigid show to the next.

John Hefner's The Hefner Monologues both is and isn't what you might guess from the title. Yes, it's monologues; no, they're not separate or independent. Yes, it's a guy named Hefner talking about his own life; no, his stories are neither fictionalized nor gaudily embellished (at least, he is able to convince us as much).

As personal tales are wont to, these include embarrassing moments, funny situations, life-changing experiences, revelations. We see Mr. Hefner in childhood, adolescence, and college years. One lesson learned: it's often the "silly little things" that make all the difference, things like finding you have a clean tissue to offer a pretty girl who's crying. theater Another lesson: being related to a famously unique celebrity (Mr. Hefner is a relation of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner) can be a curse, but the curse can also be lifted.

Mr. Hefner's non-relationship with his famous cousin is the surface element that holds the hour-long piece together, but what really makes the show more than a sequence of set-pieces is threefold. First, Mr. Hefner has skilfully woven the stories into a contiguous narrative whole. Second is the serious side of the subject matter, mainly the actor's attempts to deal with a difficult family legacy unrelated to the famous cousin. The third is the sheer force of Mr. Hefner's personality, which in this case is another way of saying his talent as an actor. While the stories may be true and unembellished, the delivery is bigger than life, often nearing (but never going over) the top.

Ah, "the top": that famous theatrical promontory which we all know when we see, but can never fully define. Mr. Hefner's presentation is almost too big for the tiny theater he's in. But one wouldn't want him to tone it down, any more than one would expect his famous relation to ever be anything other than the icon of indulgent excess he is. The Hefner Monologues is a modest-sized piece with a very big heart, and well worth your modest investment.


At the Red Room, 85 E. 4th St., in repertory as part of the Frigid Festival through March 8. See the schedule for dates and times.

Theater Review (NYC): Soul Samurai by Qui Nguyen

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

Feeling overly soft and cuddly? Dulled by the long winter? Need to pump yourself full of urban adrenaline? Soul Samurai is one long, sustained blast of the stuff. With unflagging energy and nary an ounce of dramatic flab, playwright/fight director Qui Nguyen riffs on post-apocalyptic science fiction, Fangoria horror (specifically vampire lore), blaxploitation films, karate movies, samurai/ninja subcultures, and gangsta rap bravado. His take on popular culture leans heavily towards fan-geekdom, and so of course it's also sexy, and full of noisy joy.

Combining cinematic vividness and let's-get-physical stagecraft, Soul Samurai boasts more fight scenes than the complete works of Shakespeare, or so it seems. It has a youthful, athletic cast with more energy than a solar flare, and talent to match.

At first one wonders whether the show can sustain the pace established by the opening fight between the gang leader of a fantastical post-war Brooklyn (Sheldon Best, ice-cool), and the brash but lovable b-boy Cert (the happily scene-stealing Paco Tolson). Our hero, Dewdrop (the sharp Maureen Sebastian) quickly appears, and the fight is over. theater Cert gloats: "See, nobody messes with the Cert and the Dewdrop. I told you, you fucked up motherfucker, we'ze the baddest, we'ze the prettiest, we'ze the g.d. finest!" The more serious-minded Dewdrop chastises him: "The fuck you doing, bozu?" "I'm talking smack," he replies. "Talking smack is the best part."

With that, Nguyen is off and running. Amidst the elaborate choreography, larger-than-life characterizations, projections and lighting effects, vivid underworld sets, and urban music (of several eras), talking smack is still the best part. Nguyen is mad-skilled at creating urban-speak characters who through their use of language are fleshed out realistically before us while sending themselves up at the same time.

With few props, the production team creates a mythical gangland NYC reminiscent of Escape from New York or a 21st century dystopian video game. It's no accident that the comparisons which leap to mind are cinematic. This is theater for an audience raised in front of the screen. It's like a kick-ass sci-fi martial arts flick, but better, because stunt doubles, video trickery, and digital manipulation have no place here.

What is expertly manipulated is the storytelling, far from linear but perfectly clear. The plot is a simple revenge story. A gang of bloodsuckers has killed Dewdrop's lover, Sally December (Bonnie Sherman). Dewdrop swears to kill them back. But first she must train for combat. Years pass. Finally ready, she earns passage from the shogun of Manhattan (Jon Hoche, very funny in multiple roles) over the bridge to "Brooknam," reluctantly towing the besotted Cert, who, in trusty sidekick fashion, ends up proving invaluable.

theaterThe cast of five act, do battle, and move equally well; they're gutsy and dexterous. There are bright lights, puppets, funny videos, music and dance, and maybe, just maybe, one too many fight scenes. Director Robert Ross Parker, together with the playwright, who has staged those excellent fight scenes, creates blast after blast of happy energy.

There are many aspects worthy of note: the sweeping choreography during the first "Interlude" (actually a comic book-style origin story); Dewdrop and Sally's meet-cute scene; Hoche's turn as an arrogant preacher; and the climactic slow-motion battle between Dewdrop and her ultimate nemesis (who that turns out to be, I won't give away), to name a few.

The show has a lot of swearing, and a bit of graphic sex talk, so it's not appropriate for wee ones, but aside from that, audiences of any age should have a grand time seeing this supercharged piece of underworld hotness.


Soul Samurai plays through March 15 at HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Ave., NYC.

Photos by Jim Baldassare.  First photo: Paco Tolson and Maureen Sebastian.  Second photo: Bonnie Sherman.

kLoB

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

Ray Charles, Leon Russell, JJ Grey… Kip Kolb?


music

Kolb, the lead singer of Florida’s kLoB, has a gruffer vocal style than those keyboard-playing soul singers, but there’s a continuity nonetheless. I caught the band at R Bar the other night. Their live set is tight and exciting. Kolb’s unusual singing, while a key part of the band’s sound, jumps out at you less in the live setting, probably because the band is so good. (Almost anyone can be made to sound good in the studio, but live is another thing entirely).

And a super-nice bunch of guys, too.

For one of the best live blue-eyed soul concerts around, be sure to catch kLoB whenever they come to your town.

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Theater Review: Conversations on Russian Literature Plus Three More Plays by David Johnston

Monday, February 16th, 2009

One of Broadway's more exciting offerings this month is being served way down at the Access Theater at 380 Broadway, an off-off-Broadway house several miles south of the official "Broadway" district. Up three long, ancient wooden flights of stairs in a former sweatshop, a superb drama of international intrigue is playing.  And literally speaking, it's on Broadway.  So there.

Conversations on Russian Literature has all the elements of the great suspense stories of our age: two characters sitting in a park talking.

This one-act is the second and more substantial half of an evening of plays by David Johnston. Sitting on park benches — not even taking a walk in the woods — an American negotiator (Jonna McElrath) and an old Russian general (Frank Anderson) toss hot potatoes back and forth: their intellectual pursuits (hence the title), their personal histories, their own place in history, their practical and inner motivations for meeting.

By itself, this play is worth more than the price of admission. Skilfully, with music-perfect pacing, and with huge help from two superb performances and Gary Shrader's subtle, unobtrusive direction, the playwright reveals who these players really are and what brings them to this strange crossroads.

The setting is very specific: "The Patriarchs Pond in Moscow, Summer 2004, early evening." The time is important — less than two years after the Moscow theater hostage crisis, a turning point in Russian history, in which the authorities used an "unknown chemical agent" to free hundreds of hostages from Chechen terrorists. theater But one needs only a dim awareness of recent Russian history to appreciate this tense, funny production, just as one doesn't need to be familiar with the works of Turgenev, Bulgakov, or Chekhov, all of which are referenced as these two unforgettable characters probe for each others' soft spots. While very intellectually and historically aware, this play stands on its own merits.

The evening begins, however, with a playlet for which some knowledge of Russian theater (specifically Chekhov) is needed. But the cheap jokes and spirited performances in Play Russia aren't enough to make it more than very modestly amusing even as an in-joke. As a piece of meta-theater, it's no The Actor's Nightmare. Fortunately, the play is short, and the two works that follow it are better. In the swiftly paced, slightly experimental For Those Of Us Who Have Lived In France, two historical figures and one stereotypical middle-American housewife explain why they wish they could go to France and are sad they can't. David Lapkin's impression of Henry Kissinger is particularly amusing.

Johnston's mastery of the link between humor and pathos becomes seriously clear in Mothra is Waiting. theater A nightclub sister act has gotten old, to the point where drag queens are parodying it. One sister is ready to grab her last chance for a better life, while the other insists — screechingly — on waiting for the giant moth of the title to come and take her back to the island where the sisters once reigned as princesses. (Familiarity with classic Japanese monster movies is recommended!) It's a finely wrought absurdist miniature that leads us to expect much of the longer play that follows intermission. We are not disappointed. Don't miss this highlight of the winter season down on lower, lower Broadway.


Conversations on Russian Literature Plus Three More Plays by David Johnston continues through Saturday, March 7, with performances Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 PM. Performances are at the Access Theater (380 Broadway, just north of White Street). Tickets are $18 ($10 during previews) and are available by calling SmartTix at 212-868-4444, or online.

No Place Like Home: Digging New York

Friday, February 13th, 2009

Dorothy was right. There really is no place like home.

I've been to some of the great capitals of Europe — London, Paris, Copenhagen, Madrid. I've been to Jerusalem, the ancient spiritual home of three great religions. I've been to beautiful and fascinating old towns like Toledo (Spain), Copenhagen, Heidelberg, Montreal. Yet my own town, New York City, in whose suburbs I grew up and in which I now spend almost every day of my life, remains more deeply and endlessly fascinating to me than any of them.

You'd think it would become old and tired, boring and same-old. But it doesn't. And I think I've figured out why.

The great cities and historic towns I've visited, especially in what we used to quaintly call the "Old World," tend to have a powerful dedication to their pasts, avidly preserving their monuments. Roman ruins, medieval castles, royal palaces and estates, historic sites and neighborhoods are all right there for locals to take pride in and tourists to ogle. The great metropolises may spread out and become super-cities, but their "old town" neighborhoods remain.

New York, on the other hand, is constantly being torn down and rebuilt. Its 400-year history is there, but you have to dig for it, literally or in museums and books. You have to push aside the heavy crust of present-day culture, commerce, and architecture to reach the lower layers of the past. Otherwise you could walk the city for days and see precious little that predates the 20th century.

New York has been a center of commerce for its whole history. Before landfill extended lower Manhattan several blocks into the rivers that frame it to the east and west, Wall Street ended at Water Street, at the river's edge, and here stood the Meal Market. nyc But grains weren't the only commodities sold here – the Meal Market was also the Slave Market.

Few of us think about the heavy presence of slaves in our city's history. In fact, slavery wasn't completely abolished in New York until 1827. A major exhibit at the New-York Historical Society helped educate a lot of us about that a few years ago. But how many Wall Street wizards – many of them now walking the streets looking for work, but hardly in danger of being sold at auction – think about the evil trade that was conducted at that very spot for two centuries?

Less than a mile to the north, in a section of lower Manhattan not frequented by tourists, a smallish square of concrete called Collect Pond Park sits ringed by tall, cold-shouldered buildings. Centuries ago, there was an actual pond here, fed by an underground spring that still runs somewhere deep beneath the streets. (The name "Collect" is a bastardization of a Dutch word – nothing was "collected" there.) The pond was a major source of fresh water for New Amsterdam and early New York. You'd never imagine that now. nyc Now it's owned by pigeons, pecking in puddles.

Nearby was the Negro Burial Ground. In 1741, some 30 men, mostly African slaves, were executed – some hanged, others burned at the stake – during a witchhunt-like panic after a rash of suspicious fires. Some of the bodies were strung up and left to rot on an island in the Collect, a warning to other slaves not to participate in any further uprisings.

Today, you could live or work in this neighborhood your whole life and never know about the grisly things that happened here in those days.

By the 1800s the Collect had become a cesspool of industrial waste, so it was filled in with land taken from a hill that used to rise nearby. (We New Yorkers happily obliterate our geography along with our history.) The notorious Five Points neighborhood then evolved beside what used to be the Collect.

The book and movie Gangs of New York and the novel A Winter's Tale both made good use of legends of the Five Points, but the average New Yorker can easily be forgiven for failing to make a connection between those tales and this actual part of town. nyc You have to read up on its history to find out just where the Five Points neighborhood actually was, and when you go there, it's practically impossible to imagine it. Almost nothing remains of the history, the culture, even the buildings that defined the area in the time of Bill the Butcher and Jacob Riis. Now it's just another part of Chinatown.

Good riddance to the Five Points, of course. It was a neighborhood of poverty, brutal crime, and terrible odors. But wouldn't it be great if we could still walk those streets and picture what once was? We can't. The very layout has changed. And this is characteristic of New York as a whole. Blink and it's gone, replaced by something new – maybe something better, but too often not. A shame? Yes. Having bulldozed so many of our monuments and buried so much of our history, we've lost much.

But at the same time we have, in a sense, created something: we've made the city into one giant archeological site – a physical one, and also fertile ground for a kind of archeology of the mind. Precisely because we can no longer visit so many of the sites our history teaches us about, we are prodded to dig further, even if it's only to read a book, watch a documentary, or go on a walking tour. Take an organized walking tour in New York and chances are you'll find as many locals as visitors.

Sure, there are plenty of New Yorkers who breeze blithely through their day paying no attention to what's around them now, much less to what used to be there. But there are a good many of us who feel the tug of an endless fascination with our city, who have a persistent need to dig, who insist on blowing away the dust and sniffing out the layers of history that underlie the pavement we walk on every day.

As the saying goes, home is where the heart is. But for us New Yorkers, home is also where the best stuff is. And a lot of that stuff is down below, buried deep in the past. It calls out to the curious souls walking above, beckoning us to plunge a spade down through the centuries.

Kevin So

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

Here’s Kevin So playing “Brighter Day” at Spike Hill in Williamsburg on Jan. 31, with me on bass and Robin Lai on drums. Video courtesty of Sitcom Serf.

Theater Review: The Wendigo

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

I went to see the Vagabond Theatre Ensemble's The Wendigo with some trepidation. How would Algernon Blackwood's classic horror tale of the Canadian woods translate to the stage? Like his predecessor Poe, Blackwood wrote meticulous and fairly dense prose, and the tale for which he is best known earns its frightfulness through the vividly descriptive power of his language. Too, as with "The Wendigo"'s direct modern descendant, The Blair Witch Project, not much actually happens in it.

Two Brits and two local guides head into the deep woods to hunt moose. One of the guides, Defago, believes too deeply in the Wendigo, a mythical Algonquin figure of terror. When it calls his name, he goes off with it and undergoes an awful transformation.

The story's power lies in its evocation of mysterious primeval forces that may yet lurk in the depths of the forest in spite of human civilization. Such tales electrify our fur by pricking at our most primitive, arboreal fear: that of becoming prey. Dr. Cathcart (Eric Gratton) represents the psychological approach, insisting that the strange goings-on are the result of mental instability brought on by the wilderness. "The Wendigo is simply the Call of the Wild personified, which some natures hear to their own destruction." But finally the psychologist's science can't completely explain what's happened.

Blair Witch took a modern approach to this kind of story, made possible by the medium of film: it placed the audience behind the eyes of the characters. One can't do that in the theater, of course. But one might imagine staging a wordy story like "The Wendigo" by turning it inside out, snaking deep into the minds of the characters in some other way. Playwright Eric Sanders has chosen to tell the story straight, though. Essentially true to the action of the original, his 45-minute version relies heavily, as did the original story, on atmosphere. Here it's created by the trusty trappings of B-movie horrordom: insistent sound effects, spooky music, sudden and extreme lighting changes, a murky forest set – along with that modern theatrical staple, projection.

An able, creative crew handles all these elements with gusto. But in playing it straight Sanders also depends on a lot of narration. Early on, director Matthew Hancock has the young seminarian Simpson (Nick Merritt) storming about the stage as he describes action that we're not seeing. There's nothing wrong with a little narration – that's partly what a Greek chorus was for, after all. But in a play this short, I wished for more showing and less telling.

Maybe that's a lot to ask of a tale in which mood and suggestion are so important, and in which (as in Blair Witch) the "monster" is never really seen. But something was distinctly missing here, and it wasn't from Hancock's direction or from the performances, which were good all around. Of note was Kurt Uy, who plays Defago with a gruff, dark touchiness and a lasered focus. As soon as he appeared, I thought: that man is Defago. And with its direct telling, this production is "The Wendigo." But it's "The Wendigo" minus the rich texture of Blackwood's prose, and the special effects don't fully make up for that.

The Vagabond Theatre Ensemble's production of The Wendigo runs through Feb. 28 at the Medicine Show Theatre, 549 W. 52 St. Tickets at Smarttix or call (212) 868-4444.