Archive for May, 2009

Theater Review: Squiggy and the Goldfish by Lenny Schwartz and Ore, or Or by Duncan Pflaster

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

I have now seen all three productions in the inaugural series from the new tripartite Theatre of the Small-Eyed Bear, comprised of three Off-Off Broadway companies which have economized by sharing production costs, space, and design teams, subsuming their individual identities as well.

From a technical standpoint, the operation has been a success. All three plays, for example, share one easily modifiable set (by the talented Elisha Schaefer). There's one publicist, one graphic designer, one technical team. All good.

As for the productions themselves, they're a mixed bag. David McGee's Mare Cognitum, reviewed last week, had some fine writing and very good performances, but sacrificed dramatic integrity for philosophical meandering.

Lenny Schwartz's Squiggy and the Goldfish is painted in brighter, childish colors, which lends weight to its theme of abuse, but it too suffers from a weakness of focus.

At the center of Squiggy is a brave, sharp performance by Josh Breslow as the title character. Abuse at the hands of his suicidal father has made him a cutter of long standing, though he's successfully hidden his scars from his ineffective, half-unmoored mother (Dana Aber). Terrorized by his cruel fiancée Veronica (the excellent Katrina Ylimaki) and her violent father (Jonathan Miles), Squiggy gets no relief even in his dreams, where a horror-movie psychiatrist and a nightstick-happy cop chase him through paranoid fantasies.

Salvation appears in the form of Blossom (Elyse Ault), a clerk at the pet shop where Squiggy goes to seek a cure for his excessively voluble goldfish, Goldie. This animal spirit, played with comic bluster by Eric C. Bailey, leads Squiggy through the this-is-your-life sequence that forms most of the action, and at first Goldie is a very funny beast. But Mr. Schwartz and the director, Michael Roderick, relegate him further and further into the background as they gradually reveal the story of Squiggy's unfortunate life. In the process we learn more about the women he loves as well – his mother, his fiancee, and then Blossom.

As they reveal themselves, the characters stimulate aches of recognition, but the effect is too often subverted by Recovery Movement catchphrases, characters stating the obvious to one another, and narrative inconsistencies. Goldie informs Squiggy he is to die in a week, but a revelation at the end seems to tell a different story. Mr. Breslow does absolutely all he can to keep the play centered, but he can do only so much.

Duncan Pflaster's Ore, or Or, the most successful of the three plays, also makes use of dream sequences, but here they are in the context of a well-rounded, coherent drama about relationships and racial identity. It is also staged with much starker realism than the other plays; though it's the same theater, we feel we're in an entirely new and somehow larger physical space. The crafty lighting and brittle, economical set create the illusion of more depth on stage, and Mr. Pflaster lights it up with an artfully constructed, well-aimed, and resonant story.

The action flows quickly, thanks to director Laura Moss, and that's good, because these characters have much to go through. The tale is essentially a classic love triangle, with the beefy Calvin Kanayama (E. Calvin Ahn) at the apex. He seems to love his new girlfriend, down-to-earth Debbie (Elizabeth Erwin), but lusts after the lithe and forward Tara (Clara Barton Green). Along the way he bonds with Sean (Shawn McLaughlin), Debbie's gay roommate, who, through no fault of his own, suffers from knowing more than he wants to about his friends' love lives. In creating a supportive and single "gay best friend," Mr. Pflaster flirts with cultural stereotype, but comes out pure, as Sean flowers into the most likable and vivid character of all.

The action skips deftly through one seriocomic situation after another. The mostly solid cast has fun with video games, food poisoning, Star Trek, and Sean's adventures as a substitute teacher. Periodically, a gong and some evocative shakuhachi music divert us into one of Calvin's dreams. These have been touched off by his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he's researching some gold figures that just might come from the legendary Yamashita's treasure. This sub-theme is an appealing, ornate framing device, though perhaps not totally necessary, as the imperfect, realistically rough-edged New Yorkers living their laughing, heartbreaking lives in front of us are intriguing enough by their plain selves. Still, without the dream sequences, we wouldn't have the lovely costumes and the great score, and they do provide some neatly dramatic moments as well, so who's complaining? The car may be a little used, but the paint job is smooth and the engine runs very well. Climb aboard; this is a worthwhile trip.

Squiggy and the Goldfish and Ore, or Or play in repertory through May 30 at the Workshop Theater, 312 W. 36 St., NYC. Tickets are only $12.

Theater/Dance Review: Le Serpent Rouge by Austin McCormick and Company XIV

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

Austin McCormick's Company XIV is back with another extravagant, sexually charged dance-theater piece of the kind only they can produce. Where last year's Judgment of Paris drew on the young choreographer's study of French baroque dance (pre-classical ballet), the dancing in Le Serpent Rouge is more modern; but again the company creates a visionary re-imagining of a classic story, this time the legend of Adam, Eve, and Lilith.

In this telling, Adam (John Beasant III) is first paired with Lilith (Yeva Glover), but although the sex is great, he rejects her because she has "no soul" and what he needs is a soulmate. Nevertheless Adam continues to desire Lilith, both before and after the Fall, and this provides the production's ongoing tension as the wonderful cast of five dances through elegant and sensual enactments of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Narrating is Gioia Marchese as a Ringmistress in an outfit worthy of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, also functioning as the Devil, constantly proffering the infamous apple of the Tree of Knowledge to Eve (Laura Careless). Appropriately, the set is a circle, both cagelike and circusy. Coiling through is the serpent, evoked by Davon Rainey, who also delivers several interesting and illuminating (and highly crowd-pleasing) drag numbers.

But none of this factual description conveys the lurid opulence of the production. Swings, a giant chandelier hung low to the ground, a focused rain of water, a huge mirror (for Eve to lose herself in), light bondage, near-nudity, and the world's first threesome are only a few pieces of the puzzle. The choreography is continually expressive and beautifully realized by the amazing dancers; the movement is descriptive, never abstract, occasionally a little repetitious, but the spell holds for the production's full 70 minutes.

The score plays a big part in establishing and maintaining the mood. As with Judgment of Paris, it's sewn together from a variety of sources, this time from the likes of Eartha Kitt and Peggy Lee, Cecilia Bartoli and Nina Simone. The text includes a Bukowski poem and passages inspired by Thomas Mann along with elements from the Bible and the Apocrypha. While dance predominates, the cast prove themselves capable actors. Ms. Glover is both regal and slinky, Ms. Careless a package of joy and pain and anger successively, Mr. Beasant a compact, darkly human Everyman. Ms. Marchese and Mr. Rainey are pure over-the-top delight, as they were in Judgment of Paris.

Given the dark material, there's surprisingly little menace in the tale. One gets the sense that Mr. McCormick and his troupe take such pleasure in their work that real evil, even in circus guise, can find no purchase on their stage. But no matter; this is a richly woven, thoroughly rewarding entertainment, well worth the excursion to the company's beautifully converted tow-truck pound near the Gowanus Canal. Get tickets before it closes on June 6!

Photo by Steven Schreiber. (L-R): Davon Rainey and Yeva Glover

Glee, Rock of Ages, and the Show-Tunification of Classic Rock and Pop

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

After seeing this week's premiere of FOX's new high school musical comedy-drama, Glee, and recently catching Rock of Ages on Broadway, it struck me how classic rock, pop, and pop-metal songs from the '70s and '80s have turned into show tunes.

There used to be a clear distinction between "show tunes" and other songs. Show tunes, as their name implies, came from classic Broadway shows, and sometimes from films of Hollywood's golden era. Popular music that you heard on mainstream radio — whether pop, rock, or country — lived in a separate cultural world. Not that you couldn't like both. But you didn't hear them in the same context.

Now Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" is a show tune. Who would have thought?

I blame Mamma Mia, which helped spawn Jersey Boys and other semi-revues based on popular music. The end is not in sight; there's even a show in development based on Green Day's American Idiot.

Journey's hit, along with many other hard-rock anthems and ballads of its era, form the score of Rock of Ages, the new Broadway hit musical. "Don't Stop Believing" also famously accompanied the controverial final scene of the last episode of The Sopranos, and now it fuels the grand production number that climaxes the debut of Glee, a new show about high school glee club performers.

It's not a current song, by any means, and not the kind of music we'd expect today's high schoolers to be into. But the theater kids are into it, at least on Glee, and why? Because just like a classic show tune, "Don't Stop Believing" is a fundamentally good song that's also deliciously over the top. The kids also make a very funny production number out of Amy Winehouse's "Rehab," a much newer song that shares those traits.

Of course there's always been "showiness" in pop and rock. For every sinewy, straight-up act like Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones, there's an equally successful act that's more self-consciously showy: the glam-rock of Bowie and T-Rex, the grandiloquent Freddie Mercury of Queen, the theatricality of Pete Townshend's Tommy and Quadraphenia scores, the stagy productions of early prog-rockers like Genesis, and of course the arena-pop music extravaganzas of the likes of Cher, Tina Turner, and Madonna.

But there was still a separation. And when rock did start to appear on Broadway, it came in the form of new shows with new music written for them (Hair, Godspell), or material that already existed in "show" form, like Tommy, which was conceived as a rock opera from the start.

Once Abba came to Broadway, there was, it seems, no turning back; it was just a matter of time till Rock of Ages appeared. And just as theater geeks of the '70s took inspiration from the music of an earlier era — what we knew then as "show tunes" — the kids of a new TV show circa 2009 (not to mention American Idol and its cohorts) go back to what is, for them, a correspondingly early era, the '70s.

So pop music feeding the theater is a well-established thing by now, but it's still a bit of a shock, if a happy one, to see Journey, Whitesnake, and Amy Winehouse becoming show tune fodder. Back in the '80s, "oldies" radio stations played doo-wop. Now they play music from the '70s and '80s. The definition has changed. And the same has happened to the meaning of "show tunes." Musical eras are like waves on the beach, arriving one after another, each one crashing, then falling back into the sea to feed the next wave. Cowabunga, dude! And don't stop believing.

Theater Review: Mare Cognitum by David McGee

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Like a chunk of green cheese with an emerald inside, this meditation on the power of imagination contains a hard, bright nugget.

Mare Cognitum follows three twenty-somethings reliving the wide-eyed excitement of intellectual discovery they experienced in college. Or rather, that's what the playwright himself, David McGee, seems to be indulging in.

There's promise in his effective opening scene, and dramatic flair in several other segments along the way. At the start, Lena (Devon Caraway) and Jeff (Kyle Thomas) can't see eye to eye about whether they should bother joining the anti-war protest marching past their apartment building. Jeff decries the crowd's lack of focus; Lena, too, casts a critical eye, but feels an urge to join her own passion to the masses'. Their compromise involves protesting at home without merging with the mob; "Nobody's listening to them either," sighs the withdrawn, Hamlet-like Kyle, "and at least we'll be warm."


Though the dialogue feels a little bloated, the actors' precise delivery and director Jesse Edward Rosbrow's smart staging keep the scene moving well. But when the third roommate, Thomas (Justin Howard), arrives home, ostensibly from a job interview, the play bogs down in a repetitious and overlong discussion of (Doubting) Thomas's nihilism and atheism.

When the friends act out the job interview, it's the first instance of a role-playing trick that works better during a few later scenes, when it's used more crisply to turn the living room into a classroom and (too much later) a rocket ship. The interview itself turns out to have been something else entirely; Thomas has been keeping a secret from his friends, a secret which leads to more college-coffeehouse discussion but little character development. Though poor vexed Thomas seems at first to be going against character to seek some kind of enlightenment, when the chance comes for him to really engage his imagination he retreats.  He's a tragic character in this sense, yet at the end he's right back where he started — just a guy looking for a job, not sure yet what he wants to do with his life.

The play's problem is that not enough happens. The characters' exchange of ideas can't carry 90 minutes of drama. When something does occur — notably, Lena's spiritual awakening, and at the end, a half-real trip to the Moon — the production springs to life. Lena's description of her church visit is a fine piece of writing, and Ms. Caraway brings it home brilliantly. It's one of the periods of focus that represent the promise of the play, which, tightened up, could be a powerful piece of theater.

Mr. Rosbrow, the director, cannot be much faulted for the play's problems, and the cast and crew are very good. Mr. Walters' Jeff sulks and whines a lot, sometimes becoming tiresome, but at certain moments he holds tension like a grieving tiger, switching personae with ferocity when the grudging script gives him the chance.  For her part, Ms. Caraway's sharp, exhilarating performance is worth the price of admission; she's fixedly present at all times, making it hard to look away from her.

Yet even when the playwright has focused his intentions and brought us someplace exciting, he tries his best to sabotage the mission by inserting a squabble about the sexist nature of language ("one giant leap for mankind"). The actors, and the rest of the talent involved in this production, are too good for that.

Theatre of the Small-Eyed Bear, which is presenting Mare Cognitum in repertory at the Workshop Theater through May 30, is an amalgam of three erstwhile companies: Theatre of the Expendable, Small Pond Entertainment, and Cross-Eyed Bear Productions. They have not only joined forces, but taken the risky step of ditching their individual company names to create the new, combined group, which is sharing costs, space, and design teams. This production is part of GET S.O.M.!, their first repertory effort. It’s a promising start; I’ll be reporting on the other two productions soon.

Theater Review (NYC): Go-Go Killers!

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

Context-free, on a bare stage with a bright light shining in the audience's eyes, a young man and a young woman exchange secrets. He speaks in flamboyant metaphors.  She's charmingly down-to-earth. It's clever and amusing, then takes an unexpected, grim turn; the actors (the talented Joe Stipek and Kari Warchock) have us right in the palms of their love-sweaty hands.

Cut to young Eugene at home. It turns out he's a rich boy, attended by manacled female servants. Nelson, an avuncular friend, takes him in hand, the (deliberately?) bad acting begins, and Go-Go Killers! never recovers. There's no way to sugarcoat it: this is a terrible play, and director Rachel Klein, who did better work with All Kinds of Shifty Villains (another genre piece) last year, seems to have no idea what to do with it.

In and around a post-global-warming New York, rival girl gangs compete to murder the rich men who are enslaving their sisters. One gang captures Eugene and Nelson and drags them before the Queen, played by Leasen Almquist, in her underground lair.  Ms. Almquist is a pro, but utterly at sea in a role that's so nonsensical playwright Sean Gill has to have her explain it in a monologue. Along the way, the gang and their captives spend an interminable, poorly paced night quarreling, getting bitten by snakes, and alternately assaulting and making out with an offensively stereotyped fellow called The Wop who seems to have stuttered in from a completely different play. It's all very difficult to suffer through.

Ms. Klein is obviously drawn to stage works that play with the devices and customs of genre pictures and mannered theater traditions. With All Kinds of Shifty Villains it was noir films and circus clowning. Go-Go Killers! is meant to evoke a number of B-movie genres, especially girl-gang flicks and those manic movies that featured go-go boots and hot pants — all-American MST3K fare, in other words. This sort of thing can make for spectacular theater, as Soul Samurai proved a few months back.

But in this case, evoking is as much as the play can manage. Interspersing clumsy, overlong scenes with less-than-crackerjack go-go-inspired dance numbers does not automatically create a re-imagining, an homage, or even a parody. Those good-bad movies of yore had stories one could follow, silly though they might have been. They had bad acting, too, but the New York stage creates higher expectations than did low-budget films of the 1950s and 60s. Go-Go Killers! boasts some good dancers and nifty costumes, but little else.

Go-Go Killers! runs through May 23 at the Sage Theater, 711 Seventh Ave., NYC, through May 30. Tickets at Smarttix.

A Historical Exploration and Musical Performance of Six Franco-Flemish Déplorations

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009

Lately I've become something of an Early Music Deadhead, checking the Gotham Early Music Society newsletter and seeing all the pre-Classical concerts I can around town, especially the free ones. One such happened the other night at the beautiful, grottoed Church of Notre Dame, in Morningside Heights in upper Manhattan, where some fourteen members of the vocal group Pomerium sang a program of six Franco-Flemish Déplorations.

What are Déplorations, you ask? Heck if I knew. Fortunately Alyssa DeSocio was on hand to explain. She's a student of musicology who told us that back in the day — the Renaissance, that is — French/Flemish court composers would write pieces lamenting (hence déploration, deploring) the death of an older composer who had mentored or inspired them. The result was some exceptionally beautiful and interesting choral music.

The program ranged from the 14th to the 16th centuries, and included chansons (with words in the French vernacular), motets (in Latin), and motet-chansons (which combined the two). The music referenced medieval Gregorian chant but used polyphony, dissonant suspensions, and all the latest compositional developments of the time. The choral director helpfully pointed out a number of these features by having the chorus sing them in isolation before performing the whole piece.

Pomerium

The lyrics were poems written for the particular occasions. They mixed Christian and Classical allusions: Jesus, of course, but also Jove, Apollo, and Atropos, the Fate in charge of dispensing death. They also mentioned the deceased composer by name, glowingly praising his divinely inspired musical prowess and sometimes other qualities as well.

…Atropos, terrible satrap,
Has caught your Ockeghem in her trap,
The true treasurer of music and master,
Learned, handsome in appearance
and not at all stout…
Put on the clothes of mourning,
Josquin, Pierrson, Brumel, Compère,
And weep great tears from your eyes…

Josquin des Prez, one of the composers mentioned in the next-to-last line above, became the greatest of his time, and the program concluded with three Déplorations written in his honor.

Often part of the fascination of Early Music concerts is the proliferation of old-fashioned instruments that you don't normally see or hear anymore, instruments with names like sackbut, theorbo, and shawm, not to mention my favorites, the viol family. But this concert made purely vocal music from the Renaissance not just beautiful, but almost as interesting as a consort of curious antiques.