Archive for September, 2009

Theater Review: ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford, Adapted by Toy Box Theatre Company

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

‘Tis Pity She's a Whore, John Ford's blood-spattered incest/revenge drama from about 1630, certainly made an impression on me when I studied it in Professor Marjorie Garber's "Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama" class back in college – more, I think, for the graphic violence and gore than for the brother-sister love story. But over a quarter-century later I had yet to see a stage production of the once-banned, ever controversial play. So kudos to the Toy Box Theatre Company for its expert new production of this under-appreciated classic.

As befits the tiny stage of Teatro Iati, both cast and script have been reduced. Director Jonathan Barsness and his artistic team have cut an entire subplot, causing minor but noticeable injury to the play. On top of that, of the remaining characters, several actors play more than one, though quite deftly. Ford's humor, however, along with his audacious story and effervescent language, survive well. This is in just about every way a fit and flowing staging, thanks to superb direction, an ace production team, and a fine cast.

Ford doesn't tiptoe around his taboo subject. As the play opens, Giovanni, an intense young scholar and nobleman – fairly mild-mannered, as played by Andrew Krug – has just confessed his ardent love for his sister Annabella (Jessica Rothenberg) to the Friar (a very good Ron Bopst), his friend and former teacher. The shocked holy man counsels restraint and prayer, but Giovanni can't contain himself, goes home, and pleads his love. Annabella, though shocked as well, has, as it turns out, been harboring reciprocal feelings, and after much hesitation, they consummate. Mr. Krug and Ms. Rothenberg enact this pain-wracked yet joyful scene – one of the most stunning in English literature – with smoldering sensitivity and exquisite passion; I felt privileged to be in the theater, in their presence, at that moment.

If you're thinking to yourself, No good can come of this, congratulations. Annabella has a number of legitimate suitors, among whom her wealthy father Florio (Zenon Zeleniuch) is seeking to make the best choice, subject to Annabella's own preference (little does he know what that really is). Though he dallies with his friend Donado's (Mr. Bopst again) silly and foppish nephew Bergetto (the wonderful Michael Nathanson), he ultimately prefers the self-confident young nobleman Soranzo (the excellent, poised John Buxton). Bergetto, for his part, is too foolish and wayward to even woo properly, quite happy to divert his attentions to another young woman when one presents herself. This element of the story is one of the small, incompletely sutured wounds left by the cutting of the subplot. Fortunately, though, we get plenty of Bergetto, through whom Mr. Nathanson provides the play's comic relief in spades. His death scene is delightful.

Sarah Hankins, in a fine dual performance, actually gets two death scenes. She is the vampish Hippolita, the very model of the vengeful woman scorned (by Soranzo). She is also Annabella's tutor and confidante, Putana, who, in this version, is simply strangled rather than having her eyes gouged out. This change wasn't made to reduce the gore quotient; it's another artifact of the cuts that have been made in the text. Ms. Hankins dies fabulously both times, however. We are not cheated of her talents.

Just as Ms. Hankins easily negotiates two very different characters, the cast smoothly navigates Gian Marco Lo Forte's handsome, compressed but functional set (and manipulates it handily during the many scene changes). The production is a master class in efficient technical operations. The live three-man band, under the direction of the hirsute yet nimble bassist James Sparber and collectively known as Colonna Sonora, enhances the play's romantic, dark, and tragic moods with creepy and dramatic rock music, alternately insistent and haunting.

But the big discovery here is Ms. Rothenberg. With a scant New York resume, she is a product of Boston University's Conservatory Program, which has given us Michael Chiklis, Julianne Moore, Geena Davis, and Jason Alexander. After her spellbinding performance in this tricky and probably exhausting role, one imagines a similarly shining career for this newcomer. She is as beautiful as she is talented, and while in some roles that might be a distraction, here it adds a dimension, as one can easily identify with Giovanni's ardor. Yet through body language and makeup she transforms, heartbreakingly, into an ashen moral wreck, as the Friar's prediction – "death waits on thy lust – nears fulfillment.

Mr. Krug, for his part, while very good in the run-up, and very facile with the high-toned language of his flowery speeches, displays a certain lack of gravitas as the violent climax approaches. Hence his vengefulness feels less fully justified than the motives of the others. As a result, the violent, climactic scene seems oddly antiseptic – a bit of a let-down after the romance and humor and tension and darkness of the play to that point.

In the scheme of things, though, the production's flaws are vastly outweighed by its virtues. In fact, it's a must-see. ‘Tis Pity She's a Whore runs through Oct. 16 at Teatro Iati, 64 E. 4th St. Visit the Toy Box Theatre website for tickets.

Photo credits: 1) Teresa Olson. 2) Toy Box Theatre Company.

Theater Review: Thunder Above, Deeps Below

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

Last December the talented director Pat Diamond helmed an unusual, video-centric production of Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas. Now Mr. Diamond, an opera specialist, has brought a brash, colorful, operatic flair to his staging of A. Rey Pamatmat's new play Thunder Above, Deeps Below for Second Generation. Like Dido this is a story about abandonment, but it's no tragedy – Thunder Above is about redemption and rebirth as well as loss. It concerns three homeless teens in Chicago, who've all been left, one way or another, and their efforts to find a better way of life without sinking to violent crime or excessively dangerous behavior.

It's quite a sight, this play, with lavish costumes, grandiloquent sound design, and a spectacular set by Sandra Goldmark. It also boasts some very fine performances, led by Maureen Sebastian, who was so good as the swashbuckling hero of Soul Samurai back in February. This lady deserves a boost to Broadway.

The material here, however, is somewhat lacking, for two main reasons. First, the script veers from overly self-conscious poetics to cliched and unrealistic dialogue. After hearing Theresa's (Ms. Sebastian) story of being forced to abandon her baby, would a teenage Latino youth ask, "Is that why you're made of stone?" Would a sixteen-year-old homeless Filipino transsexual cry, "I won't be another trannie who dies helping his friend pull off some harebrained scheme!"? It's a testament to the skill of the actors who portray these roles (Rey Lucas and Jon Norman Schneider, respectively) that we are not thoroughly turned off by such dialogue. Rather, we grow to like and appreciate these characters, rooting for them to get to their Promised Land of San Francisco, just as we root for the production, which has many good elements, to reach the transcendent heights suggested by Ms. Goldmark's two-level, industrial-mythic set.

It never does, partly because it tries too hard to escape the base world of humanity. The play's second flaw is the way Mr. Pamatmat weaves a perplexing and unnecessary element of magic through the plot. The scenery may be operatic, but the characters aren't mythic heroes; in spite of their sometimes unrealistic dialogue, the cast makes them seem real to us. That's why we like them. Applying magic to point their way and solve their problems seems like cheating. The magic and mysticism center around the coffee shop manager/mother figure of Marisol (Phyllis Johnson, who does what she can with an awkward role). She sprinkles fairy dust in the kids' coffee. She dons an extravagant hooded robe to, Charon-like, row Theresa's lost boyfriend (a wild-eyed Darian Dauchan) across a mythic version of Lake Michigan to find her. (I'm not giving anything away; you spot right away that the hooded supernatural figure is Marisol in another guise.)

Finally, when Hector, feeling once more abandoned, cracks and threatens violence, it's Theresa who defuses the situation with her own very human grace; but it's Marisol who then lies him down and mumbo-jumbos him through some sort of mystical rebirth.

By the end, despite some amusing and touching scenes that brightened up the second act, I had begun to feel not just disengaged from the story, but uncomfortable with the character of Marisol. I had thought that in the era of President Barack Obama we might have grown past a reliance on that kind of "Magical Negro" character. The other main adult character, a rich man who wants to be Hector's "sugar daddy" while maintaining the outward life of a straight family man, seems by contrast satisfyingly real, in spite of a somewhat stiff performance by Rafael Jordan.

In short, this is an ambitious and very well done production that manifests several pleasures, but is hobbled by the flaws at its foundation.

Thunder Above, Deeps Below runs through Sept. 26 at the TBG Theatre, 312 W. 26 St., New York.

Photo: Maureen Sebastian as Theresa. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Pere Ubu, Blue Mother Tupelo, Kentucky Headhunters

Monday, September 28th, 2009

A sad note to start today’s column: Scott Bar Mortiz, of Scotland Barr and The Slow Drags, has died from complications of pancreatic cancer at the age of 44. I never met him, but when someone’s music becomes a part of the soundtrack of your own life, you feel a connection; then when that person is gone — especially much too young — you feel the loss. We feel it here at the Indie Round-Up. Four songs from the band’s upcoming CD have been released, with Scott’s final recorded vocals, available for download at their website. Here’s “Rasputin and Me”:


Pere Ubu, Long Live Pere Ubu!

Pere Ubu’s music has always been theatrical, so it’s only fitting that Dave Thomas & Co. have finally created a score for the classic Absurdist play Ubu Roi, by Alfred Jarry, the play that gave the band its name. I hadn’t seen a production of Ubu Roi since college, in the early ’80s – the same time I discovered the band Pere Ubu. But despite all the time gone by, I decided to simply listen to the album without refreshing my memory of the play, to experience it the way most listeners would. And it’s a blast.



There are several different voices, and a good bit of talking, amidst the garage-y noise and grainy serio-silliness. It is a play after all — one that inspired riots back in 1896. This music won’t have you breaking store windows. But Pere Ubu’s unique sonic sensibility might just inspire you to look at the world in a slightly different way, finding color, as they do, in infinite shades of grey. And because of the storyline, listening to this album feels as much like reading as it does hearing music. No Kindle required. Or eyes, for that matter.

Blue Mother Tupelo, Heaven & Earth

Blue Mother Tupelo is husband-and-wife team Ricky and Micol Davis, Nashville-based singer-songwriters who favor a slightly fuzzed-out sound and hypnotic, often dark guitar arrangements. Even more than Ricky’s thick, Gregg Allman-ish vocal tone, that sonic sensibility places them in a half-retro, half-timeless place. Both are fine singers, but what they do with their voices in the studio is important as well; after the straight-ahead repetition of the country-rock opener, “Always Lookin’,” Micol’s distant-sounding voice on the grave title track recalls the effects Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac used to use to get that faraway, slightly scary sound. The duo’s bluesy side comes to the fore on a medley of the original one-chord drone, “Give It Away,” and an acoustic cover of Jessie Mae Hemphill’s “Hard Times,” where Micol sounds like a very early Janis Joplin, and Otha Turner and the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band jump on for the ride.

Don’t expect a lot of the typical verse-chorus-verse-bridge forms here; this is more elemental stuff. Even Micol’s “The War,” a fully realized and arranged song, doesn’t finesse anything: “Don’t forget me. I’m coming home from the war.” “Goin’ Down Midnight” has that raunchy, apocalyptic flavor the Rolling Stones did so well in their country music period; but listen to the lyrics: it’s just a “let’s party” song.

The Davises have a nice way with lyrics. “I’ve been down and my cool is gone,” they harmonize in the beautiful “Wandering Soul.” Then after the mood lightens for “Tupelo,” things cloud up again for the bluesy drone of Micol’s “Ramblin’ Train,” which stresses Rick’s strong, moody guitar work. (He also covers drums and bass and more, while Micol handles keyboards and various guests contribute banjo, violin and the like.)

Some of the tracks on the second half of the disc aren’t as strong as the excellent stuff in the first batch, song-wise, but everything sounds top-notch. Ricky’s humble singing of the Jesse Winchester cover “Biloxi” is an island of calm – until things blow up satisfyingly at the end.

The songs that work least well for me are the love songs, interestingly enough. Fortunately, happy couple though they may be, the Davises (the female half especially) seem to have a sharp edge of darkness in their musical soul, more than enough to boil up a cauldron of music that rocks down deep.

Kentucky Headhunters, The Kentucky Headhunters Live at the Agora Ballroom

I sure did love the two Kentucky Headhunters CDs I had back in the early ’90s. (Still have ‘em, come to think of it.) I never got to see the band live, though, and they never released a live recording – until now. Is it country? Rock? Blues? The Headhunters’ classic Southern rock encompassed all three. From “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” and “She’s About a Mover” to “Oh Lonesome Me” and their hit “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine,” with a detour to the “Crossroads,” this disc is loaded with live, tight, high-energy cuts from a 1990 concert. “Davy Crockett” was still in the future, but the Headhunters were certainly at the height of their powers as a live band. Take this one to the gym and smoke it.

Theater Review: Henry V by the Queens Players

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Henry V may be Shakespeare's most stirring history play, with its heroic king, powerful exhortations to the troops ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers"), and lusty depiction of the Battle of Agincourt. At the same time, it contains a good deal of dense and difficult language, both high noble speech and slangy vernacular, as well as a fair amount of political detail that goes well beyond what a typical modern audience can be expected to find fascinating.

Director Rich Ferraioli has cut some of the politics, and some of the bantering, from his new Queens Players production at the Secret Theatre, focusing even more narrowly than does the play's full text on the character of the King. The small bit of bad news here is that we lose some of the vagabondish fun contained in some of those peripheral scenes. For example, while it's a clever touch in an American production to play Fluellen, the Welsh duke, as a southerner in a cowboy hat (complete with leeks) – and Sean MacBride Murray has fun with the role – the Irishman MacMorris isn't here, and though he may be a stereotype, he's Shakespeare's stereotype. Too, in an effort to keep the production down to two hours, some scenes that did make the cut go by almost too quickly to follow.

The good news begins with Danny Yoerges, a marvelous Henry. Any staging of Henry V needs a strong King, and especially a fairly traditional production like this one. Early in the proceedings, Yoerges seems stuck in an angry declamatory style, but his character fleshes out methodically, until by the time the young boys guarding the storehouse are killed by the fleeing French cavalry, Henry's seething, buttoned-up rage is thoroughly believable. Subsequently, after the battle is won, he transforms handily into Katherine's arch, bright-eyed wooer.

By a "traditional" production I mean the story is told straightforwardly, without extravagant sets and props, and, except for the cuts, in a form Shakespeare himself would probably recognize easily. The cast is very large, which makes for effective charging unto breaches. Casting the members of the French court as women, from King down to Herald, might in another production seem experimental or even outrageous, but after initially absorbing the conceit, one takes relatively little note of it, in large measure due to Jennifer Ewing's suitably regal performance as the French king. Jeni Ahlfeld is appropriately hot-headed at the Dauphin. (The Queen has been eliminated from the script, but she isn't missed.)

Luckily Mr. Ferraioli also cast women as the female characters: the Hostess (the former Mistress Quickly) in England; and in France, Meg Mark as a delightful and winsome Katherine and Jessica Renee Russell as a very funny Alice. The pair have a blast with the famous French-language scene where Alice teaches Katherine English words for various parts of the body. Ms. Mark is graceful, coy, funny and charming in the wooing scene as well.

Other performances of note include Thom Brown III as a very fine Chorus – mellifluous and stentorian, half Derek Jacobi, half Brad Oscar – and Jeff Burroughs as a fiery, biker-chained Pistol.

Henry V runs through Oct. 3 at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City, Queens.

Theater Review: heavenly BENTO

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Quick, think of a play about business and businessmen. What comes to mind? The works of David Mamet? The sad career of Willy Loman? In any case, if you've thought of something, it's probably some savage American play about hard men, hard luck, or both.

Now imagine a distant, alien land, where doing business is a matter of cooperation and honor, not cutthroat competition. Where a business contract – if a contract is even deemed necessary – contains a requirement that if circumstances that might affect the terms of the contract change, the parties will sit down and politely discuss the matter.

Japan, early 1950s. With his country still reeling from the war, weapons engineer Masaru Ibuka (Alexander Schröder) dreams of founding a new consumer electronics company where he will run "the ideal factory" and help "reconstruct Japan." He will "eliminate any untoward profit-taking" and in the process "elevate the nation's culture." Doesn't sound much like the dog-eat-dog world of American business, and indeed it's not.

heavenly BENTO, a German production which just ran for three nights in English at the Japan Society, uses narration, dramatic conversations, dance, and innovative video to tell a stylized but engrossing version of the founding and success of Sony, first in Japan, then in the US. The audience sits above a raised white platform which is both stage and projection screen. The players – two actors and a dancer – interact with projected images at their feet.

One thinks of a boxing ring. One thinks also of a giant flat-screen TV. Both are appropriate. When Sony comes to New York, in the person of Akio Morita (Jun Kim), it must adjust its culture to that of 1950s America: competitive, chaotic, and big. Though a hit in Japan, Sony's pocket-size radio initially fails to impress American distributors, who insist that Americans want everything to be huge.

Initially a cautious and none-too-confident fellow, Morita squeezes himself through the sieve of American styles and ways, emerging a forceful, creative, and adaptable marketer. Ikeda, who stays in Japan struggling for years to perfect what would become Trinitron color TV technology, never fully comes to grips with what is required to expand successfully into the US market, and it is the contrast between the two men, one developing and progressing, the other sticking to the old ways, that provides the play with much of its drama.

The development of Sony's technology becomes a compelling story too. The company initially had to fight a reputation Japanese manufacturers had in America for "cheap stuff and bad imitations." But after lengthy birth pangs, the Trinitron is a technological and popular success, and when color is finally projected onto the wide, white stage floor, the change is dramatic. With it the dancer (Kazue Ikeda) appears, and the future appears bright.

It's interesting to hear of Ibuka's half-century-old dream for his radios, that "they will be smaller and more beautiful than anything built before," coupled with his desire to "build unseen things in mysterious ways…such products exists in people's dreams – we just have to follow our dreams." This is exactly the sort of language used today of (and by) Apple. The breakthrough iPod was a latter-day Sony Walkman (which was itself a latter-day Sony TR-6 portable radio). iPod and Walkman had exactly the same function. But in the interim Sony had acquired too much faith in its own infallibility, insisting too firmly on going its own way and that the public would follow. It had lost that magical ability to tap into consumers' unconscious dreams, and instead trusted its own. Apple stepped in.

The play doesn't deal with Sony's loss of the the mantle of cool. The closest it gets to Cupertino is a mention of Sony's leap into Hollywood with its 1989 acquisition of Columbia Pictures. But the story it tells has something mysterious and magical about it – as mysterious, in its way, as art itself.

heavenly BENTO played for three nights this past week at the Japan Society in New York. It returns to Berlin for a short run next month.

Photo: posttheater

Theater Review: MilkMilkLemonade by Joshua Conkel

Monday, September 21st, 2009

One of the funniest shows in town right now is also one of the most searching. Joshua Conkel's MilkMilkLemonade is a rollicking, twisting, and twisted coming-of-age tale that's also, thanks to an excellent cast and Isaac Butler's boisterous, assured direction, pretty slick for an Off Off Broadway production.

The Management has become known as an edgy downtown group with notable depth. Their new production explores being gay in America, but specifically Middle America, and more precisely a chicken farm not far from the implied national nightmare succinctly summed up in the name "Mall Town, USA." Conkel's script feelingly and humorously explores the relationship between two schoolboys, one effeminate and (mostly) liking himself that way, the other so desperately fighting his homosexual urges that he lashes out in a number of ways: "setting stuff on fire," getting into fights at home and at school, and punching and kicking the air like Cuchulain battling the waves.

The graceful, plastic, slightly Jim Carrey-ish Andy Phelan is a joy as Emory, who both embodies and explodes the stereotype of the boy who plays with dolls, dreams of singing and dancing on Broadway, and sometimes wishes he were a girl just to make things "easier." Elliot, the tough kid – coiled with rage, but at heart a romantic with a thing for tuxedos – is played wonderfully by the diminutive actress Jess Barbagallo. She's much shorter than Phelan, and the reverse-role height difference is a constant reminder that what's on the inside is what should matter. Elliot is bitterly ashamed of their sex play in Emory's barn, and it discomfits Emory too, in a different way; Nanna, his grandmother, is constantly trying to "cure" him of his effeminate ways, and his best friend and confidant is not a person at all but Linda (Jennifer Harder), an oversized chicken.

Linda's not a pretend friend, exactly. Though only Emory can understand her clucking, she's known to all, having attained semi-mythical status with the curious Elliot and become a thorn in the side of the impatient Nanna (Michael Cyril Creighton in hilarious drag). Nanna just wants to get her chickens processed and sold, while Emory wants to protect this special chicken from the jaws of the machine; in fact, he wants to grow up and turn the farm into a vegan paradise. How it all ends isn't terribly important; getting there is where the fun is, and there's an awful lot of it – a number of moments had the audience in such stitches the cast had to wait patiently for the laughter to fade.

Meredith Steinberg's energetic and funny choreography deserves mention, and the choices of music are spot-on – how can you not love a show that features "I've Never Been to Me"? And, while the whole cast shines, it wouldn't be fair to skip a mention of Nikole Beckwith, who plays a constantly terrified narrator/chorus figure in a black leotard. Among other things, she provides translations of Linda's chicken-speak in a deadly-funny synthesized-computer voice, plays a creepy evil twin, and dances the part of Elliot's beloved Barbie-type doll.

There's so much to recommend this show, so many show-stopping bits and scenes, that it was standing room only last night at the tiny UNDER St. Marks theater. (Beckwith and Harder's spider scene is not to be missed.) It runs only through Sept. 26, so get your tickets now.

Photos by John Alexander.

Theater Review: Emily by Chris Cragin

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

It can't be easy to create a drama about a famous recluse like Emily Dickinson, but playwright Chris Cragin and director Steve Day give it the old Amherst try with Emily. The play aims to illuminate the spinster poet's self-circumscribed life through dramatizing family scenes during her late teens and twenties.

It begins unpromisingly, with the cast clumping about constructing the set for the first scene, then introducing their characters in a sequence that's meant to be enveloping but comes across as too precious. The stylized quality of this prologue extends through much of the play, and while it does help convey the distance Emily establishes between herself and the rest of the world, it also curtails our engagement with the story. In spite of the graceful cast and their lush costumes, Mr. Day doesn't develop much of interest to look at on stage; the slow pace sometimes sinks into ennui rather than expanding into stateliness.

The play comes to life in certain amusing scenes, and it boasts some good performances, notably the finely calibrated, unsentimental yet touching portrayal of the poet by Elizabeth A. Davis. At one point, Emily's teacher, Mr. Williamson (an earnest, composite character somewhat overplayed by Christopher Bonewitz) tells Emily he has submitted one of her poems anonymously to a journal, and it has been accepted. "I don't know why I'm crying," Emily confesses in a poignant, perfect little moment that shines a pinpoint light on her character.

Another such moment, a more obvious one, crowns the play's liveliest scene: the young Emily, her siblings, and her friend Newton (Mr. Bonewitz again, here very funny) are reading from Romeo and Juliet, and the girls go on to discuss which suitor they'd choose. Emily makes an absurd selection. In her late teens, she hasn't yet retreated into her somber white cloud, but she's already a girl apart.

Ms. Davis also recites Dickinson's poetry very sweetly, and if nothing else, seeing this play will remind you (or teach you for the first time) of the great beauty of these poems. Certain lines of some of the poems are read in unison by more than one character, which I found distracted from the sense of the lines, though my companion appreciated its musicality. Other quibbles: Jenny Ledel is good as Emily's sister-in-law Sue, but Sue's lower-class origin is one of a number of potentially dramatizing factors that are spoken of but could have been taken better advantage of to make the play more engrossing. Also, though Ms. Ledel is a talented young actress, giving her a pair of granny glasses and a shawl doesn't convincingly transform her into Emily's aging mother.

In short, this modestly diverting play partially succeeds in bringing Emily Dickinson to life, but more through the lead performance and the poetry itself than through the play's conception or realization. I can't deny that it succeeded in sending me home to crack open my copy of Emily Dickinson's Collected Poems.

Emily runs through Sept. 27 at Theatre Row.

Photo: Firebone Theatre

Theater Review: Lizzie Borden

Monday, September 14th, 2009

After some none-too-thrilling recent experiences with new musicals, including one about a famous set of awful murders, I wondered whether Lizzie Borden would be more of the same blathering – or the refreshing energy charge its promotions seemed to promise. Thank the Lord of the Flies (or somebody), it's the latter.

Loud, dark, creepy, and lovely to look at (despite limited quarters), the show fancifully retells the story of the sensational 1892 double murder in Fall River, Massachusetts. Thirty-two-year-old Lizzie Borden was acquitted of killing her father and stepmother with a hatchet, despite circumstantial evidence against her. After the acquittal, many continued to believe in her guilt, and the nation has never forgotten the grisly tale.

The show assumes Lizzie's guilt and explores why the deeds might have gone down. Its creators – Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Maner, who also directs – have set the songs in heavy metal modes, but little about the score screams "genre." It's loud, but never painfully or confusingly so, and it's edgy, with some gloomy imagery, but in essence it's comprised of simply wonderful tunes, with satisfying crunch, engaging and well-crafted lyrics, and bright (okay, dark) pop hooks. Some have complex structures, most luxuriously "Questions, Questions," one of several showstoppers, in which the four characters sing different overlapping parts and spin through evocative choreography – all in 7/8 time.

As there isn't much book, the show depends almost entirely on the songs to carry the story. Fortunately the sound designer (Jamie McElhinney) keeps the levels sensible, mics the singers well, and mixes everything properly, so one seldom misses a lyric. Even more fortunately, the four-woman cast is absolutely stellar, wonderful actors with clear, powerful voices that cut through the tight band's rock bombast without trouble.

Though the historical Lizzie's homosexuality has been fairly well established by events later in her life, the show's creators have (themselves, it seems) cooked up a romance between Lizzie (a supremely confident and perfectly fetching Jenny Fellner) and her friend Alice Russell (a radiant Marie-France Arcilla). Though the relationship is speculative, the writers have made smart use of Alice's trial testimony, turning lines like "I am afraid somebody will do something" and "I saw no blood on that dress" into pointed moments and memorable songs, and deepening the meaning of the events by the added dimension of the love story. An early song between the pair ("The Soul of the White Bird") takes place in the barn, where Lizzie escapes her hellish home life to tend her beloved pigeons. Artfully lit and shadowed by lighting designer Christian DeAngelis, it is beautifully, movingly performed by Ms. Fellner and Ms. Arcilla.

There are no characters but the four women: the regally coiffed but passionate Alice; Lizzie herself; her older sister Emma Borden (a sharp and funny Lisa Birnbaum, who has a powerful alto); and the maid, Bridget (a fierce, punked-out Carrie Cimma). The choice to leave out the elder Bordens seems a little odd at first, but its wisdom quickly becomes apparent as we're plunged into the closed, claustrophobic world of the sisters' half of the divided household. Each sister, and Bridget too, has been suggested by historians and enthusiasts as the real murderer, and the show develops along conspiratorial lines, with motives coalescing. A haunting Act I number, "Shattercane and Velvet Grass," is another showstopper, with Lizzie and Bridget circling around the idea of poisoning the usurping stepmother.

Bobby Frederick Tilley II dresses the women in gorgeous costumes, some period, others punk and biker-chick, effectively melding repressive Victorian mores with the escapist, almost vampiric imagery of the darker forms of rock music. The superb band includes Mr. Hewitt, along with Christian Gibbs of the Passing Strange band (also known as the very talented singer-songwriter C. Gibbs). The musicians propel the story inexorably towards its conclusion, which is tragic in a way, in spite of the uncertainty that lingers. Indeed, there's nothing indeterminate about this Lizzie Borden – it strikes like a hammer (or an axe), and with precision. The show would require only a modest expansion in length and breadth to be worthy of a production in a much larger setting, even Broadway. (Musicals need to be pretty long these days to justify $125 ticket prices).

For now, until Oct. 17, you can catch it for just $25 at The Living Theatre. Forty whacks to anyone who misses it.

Photos by Carl Skutsch. 1) Jenny Fellner. 2) Marie-France Arcilla, Jenny Fellner, Carrie Cimma.

Theater Review: Spinning the Times – Five World Premieres by Female Irish Playwrights

Saturday, September 5th, 2009

It's often dangerous to generalize, but I feel secure in stating that the Irish are pretty good at writing drama. The Origin Theatre Company's new evening of world-premiere one-person plays, collectively titled Spinning the Times, has done nothing to disabuse me of this happy prejudice.

Part of the Origin's 1st Irish festival, the production brings together brief new works by five female playwrights. Though the writers all hail from Ireland, it is a highly international evening, and director M. Burke Walker seems to have chosen the order of presentation with care, as one might map out a world tour.

Rosemary Jenkinson's The Lemon Tree takes place in a modern-day Belfast where violent echoes of the Troubles linger, and linger. Young Kenny likes to stir up mischief with his pals and harass the local Catholics, but he's affected more than he'd like to admit by an encounter with an American relief worker drumming up aid for Palestinians in Gaza. As embodied by the lanky, magnetic, and deadly-focused Jerzy Gwiazdowski, who dominates the stage seemingly effortlessly, Kenny is not merely a fully realized creature, but bigger than life in that believable, language-soaked Irish way. Ms. Jenkinson has the exceptional storyteller's talent of deriving large truths from small fictions. Her play is a compressed, polished marvel, practically a poem, with not a word out of place, nor, thanks to Mr. Gwiazdowski and the exquisitely skilled direction, an extraneous gesture.

From talk of Gaza, we move to the place itself, where in Lucy Caldwell's wrenching The Luthier a young Palestinian violin repairman evokes his horrific childhood. The subtle and precise sound design (by Christian Frederickson),  lighting (Jonathan Spencer), and set design (Lex Liang) aid mightily, as music and rockets and the buzzing and dimming of stuttering electrical power transport us to the workshop where Dawood, partially protected from the war outside, studies his craft – and from which he slides us into the past, where as a child he lost his family and saw his friends die in an undeclared war he didn't ask for.

Ms.Caldwell illuminates moments that limn Dawood's essential humanity against the inhumanity that surrounds him: as a child, crowding around a pilfered "porno" DVD with his friends; as a young craftsman and music student, being transported by Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance"; as a physical being, lighting and snuffing the tin-can candles he must use when the power goes out. As played convincingly by Ethan Nova, Dawood spreads his mild, peaceful nature over the theater, so that when he relates violent events they strike us all the harder. Mr. Nova easily overcomes the slight handicap of not quite looking the part, brilliantly casting a soft, cold spell, then kicking us when we're down.

Mr. Walker next gives us a welcome break with the funny, relatively breezy, but still absorbing Miracle Conway by Geraldine Aron. In this artful tale, the expert Rosemary Fine (Juno and the Paycock, The Abbey, The Gate) brings to life an everywoman who gets a job as an assistant to a famous songwriter. Spinning love fantasies, she concludes, with eminent sense, that something ought to be done about the man's beautiful but annoying wife. By the time we find out, finally, where Miracle has actually ended up, we're utterly charmed by the brazen, deluded creature, who frankly admits that "I always end up getting on people's nerves."

It was a pleasure to see again the marvelous Aysan Çelik, who nearly stole the Queen's Company's production of Twelfth Night last fall. Her vehicle here isn't the best of the evening, however. With Rosalind Hazlett's Gin in a Teacup we've arrived in the New World, where Nooshn, a young woman of Iranian extraction, waits for her sister in a bar/cafe in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Crazy Joe Gallo's old turf is now a "frontier" neighborhood whose gentrification has been slowed by lack of subway access but which is nevertheless up-and-coming; it's appropriate that the eccentric Nooshn, a vintage clothing enthusiast and blogger, has washed up in a place that's still mostly possibility. But the piece, while well-written and performed, doesn't leap off the page as the preceding stories do. It's an amusing slice of an interesting life, with Ms. Çelik rousing our sympathies and cleverly conjuring up her old-fashioned mother and pushy, politically active sister, but it doesn't quite take on the dimensionality that can elevate a one-person work from monologue to play.

The evening ends with the disappointing Fugue, in which neither Mr. Walker nor actor Mark Byrne is able to bring to life Belinda McKeon's tale of emigration. That now-familiar sectarian violence has chased another young Irish Protestant across the ocean to New York, where it remains lodged in his mind even as he's buffeted by unrelated vicissitudes of life in his new city.

Nevertheless, the best of this evening is outstanding and accounts for the bulk of it. Spinning the Times runs through Sept. 20 at 59E59 Theaters. Not taking a theater-heavy trip to Ireland anytime soon? Alas, neither am I. Fortunately, the Origin Theatre Company has brought some of the cream of the crop to New York audiences, who ought to jump at the chance to take it in, Troubles and all.