Posts Tagged ‘theatre’

Fringe-ified

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Conjoined twins, an artist’s model, Sojourner Truth, strangers on a train, and “manual cinema” via overhead projector – some of the theater I’ve covered so far at this year’s New York International Fringe Festival.


from ‘Human Fruit Bowl” – photo by Andrea Kuchlewska

Saturday, August 17th, 2013

Check out my review of Lula Del Ray, a dreamy, compelling period-piece “movie” presented live via overhead projector, cardboard puppets, live actors and music. (Photo by Katherine Greenleaf)

And follow me on a trip to Staten Island’s Snug Harbor, complete with wetlands.

Theater Review: The Barker Poems: “Gary the Thief” and “Plevna”

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

Maybe it ought to go without saying that one should go to the theater prepared to pay attention. But it doesn’t anymore, not when screen-conditioned young people no longer have the attention span to serve on a jury. So, fair warning: Potomac Theatre Project’s current production of The Barker Poems—two long poems by Howard Barker read as dramatic monologues—requires sustained attention. It’s shy of an hour long, but that’s a fair stretch when close listening is mandatory. This isn’t a production that will hit you over the head and drag you along with it. Don’t go sleepy; you’ll need your serious brain to meet Barker’s serious language.

Primarily a playwright, Barker proves a really fine dramatic poet as well. To start, the wondrous Robert Emmet Lunney performs “Gary the Thief,” which follows said thief through an epic series of existential adventures as he’s arrested and imprisoned. “I live among you/Hating you,” he addresses us; “I charm you/With the ease of one who holds/All effort in contempt.” Mr. Lunney’s performance does indeed seem effortless. Breezed from mood to mood by subtle, perfect lighting (Hallie Zieselman) and directed deftly by Richard Romagnoli, Lunney makes Gary a delightful, philosophical, and slightly dangerous rascal. A bit of a low-class Ulysses, he rises above and burrows below what regular folks seem to expect of him: “I ride History lightly as a leaf/On torrents which wash away the/Gates of prisons and of parks.”

Ultimately he seems to experience a kind of revelation, or passion, but his consistent sureness of himself keeps the ending ambiguous: if Gary can’t learn (“I did this for knowledge/But nothing came of it”), can he overcome? Is there anything to overcome? Perhaps only our skepticism about him. About whether by himself he can sustain our rapt interest for half an hour and take us somewhere we’ve not been before. Mission accomplished.

The second poem, “Plevna,” comes to us through the rapid-fire delivery of Alex Draper, who was so fine as Alan Turing in Lovesong of the Electric Bear. Subtitled “Meditations on Hatred,” the work is named for a Bulgarian city that was the site of a long siege in the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s, but Plevna stands in for all sites where the horrors of war rear up. Jarringly, our narrator has just stepped away from a cocktail party. Still nursing his drink, he brings us various points of view: “The hem of his [the priest's] cassock is stained/From the blood of horses…The emperor witnessed the decimation/From a platform made of planks…[Alexander] will not see death in such abundance/Or pain in such garlands again…” And the Sultan “is silent/Staring across the Straits/A cruiser made in South Shields unzips the placid pond.”

It’s a disturbing, at times bewildering ride, and in the end less successful as a piece of drama than “Gary.” It’s true that Mr. Draper, while bringing great liveliness to his performance, occasionally swallows a line. But in essence it’s not the fault of the performer or the crew. I think it’s simply that we read of war every day. We’re bombarded with new and old knowledge of atrocities here, there, and everywhere, world without end. We simply don’t need this, even from as great a writer as Barker, as much as we need the individual and irreproducible meta-yarns of Everyman-oddities like Gary the Thief, which can challenge our stodgy ways of looking at our violent and beautiful world.

What we do need, though, is more thought-provoking theater like this. As I said, don’t go sleepy. But go. The Barker Poems ran in repertory through August 1.

Photo by Stan Barouh


Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): The Barker Poems: “Gary the Thief” and “Plevna”” at Blogcritics.

Theater Review: Father of Lies

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

Director Jose Zayas's adaptation of Brian Evenson's thriller/exposé Father of Lies is not for the faint of heart. A slowly curdling psychological horror story of sexual abuse, murder, and mutilation, it plunges past merely common evil into that region of nothingness described in the play as making hell seem like "a picnic."

PS 122's uncomfortable seating and lack of air conditioning somehow suit the increasing press of fate around the central character, a young Mormon churchman and new father named Fochs. (The name, pronounced "Fox," is frequently commented upon in the text. That's one of a number of ways the play reflects the experimental nature of some of Evenson's writing). The excellent Evan Enderle plays Fochs acutely, clearly conveying the impression the clergyman makes upon his wife and superiors as a mere man, if a serious and vaguely troubled one. His demonic side is so distinct it appears separately as The Man, played with delicious, subtle creepiness by Richard Toth.

Zayas's nuanced script comes alive through the mouths—and bodies—of his well-chosen cast. The superb Jocelyn Kuritsky thoroughly convinces as the trusting wife gradually realizing that the accusations of child abuse brought against her husband by two pious mothers may not be lies, and that Fochs may have even worse within him.

Zayas's taut, thoughtful direction and Bruce Steinberg's pointed lighting bring out physically the conflicts in the souls of not only Fochs but his church superior, Bates, played sympathetically—considering the negative light the play casts on the church overall—by Peter McCabe. (McCabe, as it happens, co-produced last year's Lizzie Borden musical, a much different but equally effective psychological nightmare involving murder and mayhem.)

Jessica Pohly too is doubly wrenching as not one but two of the demon's victims, while Matt Huffman makes an effectively pallid, ineffective psychiatrist who never gleans the remotest clue what he's up against: not just real evil, but a powerful, authoritarian church that endeavors to cover the evil up, even to the point of excommunicating uncooperative members. Violence not just physical but gleeful. Worst of all, the very real possibility of evil triumphing.

The play is presented as a long one-act, and its deliberate pace and detailed story leads to a few scenes during the latter part where ennui threatens to sink in. The horrific climax is more than enough to rescue us from any doldrums, though, and to be completely honest, now and then it was a little hard to pry apart the effects of the seating and climate discomforts from those that came from what was happening on stage.

But it was the story, and most of all the graphic intensity of the telling, that left this reviewer shaken as he left the theater. Hard to take, beyond cathartic, Father of Lies provides a disturbing glimpse into the worst depths of human possibility. In that way, it's a little bit beautiful.

Father of Lies played at PS 122 as part of the Undergroundzero Festival.


Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): Father of Lies” at Blogcritics.

Theater Review: The Little One by James Comtois

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

Soon this wave of everything-vampire will pass, right? It has to. But for the nonce, pop culture marches on to the unbeat of the undead, and I can't say I'm immune.

Vampires are everywhere on the big and small screens and the bookshelves. It's somewhat rarer that we get to see them on stage. Nosedive Productions, who've specialized in bringing us the bloody and lurid for a decade now, aim to remedy that with James Comtois' new full-length play The Little One.

Unlike most vampire tales, which turn on supposedly surprising similarities beteen mortal humans and immortal bloodsuckers, this story fully takes the vampires' point of view, stressing the strong pull upon them of the monstrous sides of their natures. Comtois and director Pete Boisvert explore some of the intriguing implications of eternal life. For example, time speeds up for these vamps, so as the centuries pass they have trouble keeping up with the evolution of fashion and, most entertainingly, language. There are also interesting spins on some of the details of vampire lore. Here, religious symbols repel only vamps who were believers as humans.

The always limber Becky Byers rises above sometimes awkward dialogue with a driven performance as Cynthia, the "Little One" of the title, a "doormat" turned into a vamp just after breaking up with her boyfriend. Her crawling, clawing emergence into her new, bloodthirsty world is one of the most affecting and effective scenes in the play. Another transcendent theatrical moment is a clever set-piece showing us the dizzying (to Cynthia) passage of time via a round of disjointed conversations between the new vamp and the humans of her former life, with whom the rebellious newbie is trying to maintain relationships. The finest moment of the second act is, once again, a wordless one, as the vampires mourn the death of one of their number with a kind of vampire-specific self-flagellation ritual. These moments and other smaller ones carry the potential of the troupe's vision.

They only partly realize that potential. The uneven acting isn't the main problem, nor is the slow pacing of some scenes; rather, it's the workmanlike quality of much of the vamps' dialogue. This contrasts with the facility Comtois evinces in the scenes with humans, and with the joyful fun he takes with their future dialects. The vamps' talk is functional but without sparkle, sometimes burdened with clichés that might work in a campier tale—but despite its gothic touches, this isn't camp, it's fundamentally a serious story. As such it's absorbing enough that (until the last couple of scenes) it held my interest. But I wished for more.

Jeremy Goren and Melissa Roth acquit themselves well in multiple supporting roles, and Byers is always a pleasure both as a performer and a choreographer—in fact, more dancing would have been a plus, as she's great at expressing nuanced feeling and layers of meaning through movement. But Rebecca Comtois and Patrick Shearer struggle to make their powerful, immortal characters fully convincing—she, because we don't understand what drives her suave, culture-loving character, and he because his is basically a cartoon. The suspense element—what's the nature of the dangerous feud that simmers between Cynthia's two mentors?—fizzles. And the big-ideas debate that crops up late in the proceedings falls flat, partly due to the leaden direction of the scene in which it takes place, but mainly because it doesn't add anything to the story.

Overall, The Little One is an enjoyable show with a distinct point of view and some excellent scenes—an interesting addition to the vampire canon, but not a home run.

If you go, take heed: there will be blood. The Little One ran through July 10 at the Kraine Theatre, NYC.

Photo credit: Daniel Winters


Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): The Little One by James Comtois” on Blogcritics.

Theater Review: Modotti by Wendy Beckett

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

The Italian photographer Tina Modotti (1896-1942)—artist, agitator, femme fatale—led a fascinating life at the intersection of art, politics, and idealism. A silent-movie actress, a comrade-in-arms of Diego Rivera in Mexico, a documentarian of and participant in the Communist movement, she deserves to be better known—and for her story to be much better told than this very bad play tells it. Modotti—by Wendy Beckett, author of the flawed but far better Anaïs Nin: One of Her Lives—is the worst thing I've ever seen Off Broadway.

Episodes in Modotti's life play out disconnectedly. Tina (Alysia Reiner) moves from political crisis to crisis and from lover to lover. Her unfortunate, idealistic husband is played by Andy Paris as a vain dandy one would think utterly unappealing to the deep-thinking and emotionally demanding Tina. The photographer Edward Weston, who becomes her mentor and lover, gets a wooden, mumbling, Shatner-esque portrayal by an utterly lost Jack Gwaltney. Suffering like the rest from a lack of direction, Marco Greco's Diego Rivera blusters through scene after interminable scene like a John Belushi character searching for a funny line. Only the young Cuban revolutionary whom Tina takes up with later on (played, again, by Paris) evinces the slightest bit of chemistry with our heroine, making their brief Act II bedroom scene one of the very few bright moments in a long, dull evening.

I wasn't sure whom I felt sorrier for, myself or the actors forced to deliver the painfully stilted dialogue through which the playwright insists on telling, not showing, this inherently interesting story. And with all that, we don't even get a good history lesson, as the script fails to provide enough of the context that a historical piece like this needs. The large projections of Modotti's bluntly beautiful photographs and Rivera's famous agitprop murals give a sense of what was at stake artistically and how socialist idealism fed the art of these passionate, creative minds. But the stills, alas, have a good deal more vibrancy to them than most of what happens on stage.  

Though Ms. Reiner starts off well, smoldering through the first scene, that bit of life is all too quickly extinguished amid the dry, amateurish exposition that follows. No Italian accent, no charismatic sexiness, no acting skills could be enough to give her a chance of salvaging this poorly conceived and poorly executed play.

Modotti runs at the Acorn at Theatre Row through July 3.


Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): Modotti by Wendy Beckett” on Blogcritics.

Opera Review: Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas at the Met

Monday, April 5th, 2010

I learned quite a bit from seeing Hamlet, by French composer Ambroise Thomas.

The Met hadn't staged this opera for 113 years. Critics in the English-speaking world apparently hadn't been able to deal with the fact that it wasn't Shakespeare's play. With less death, a drinking song, and originally a "happy ending"—and a revised one that feels like Romeo and Juliet superimposed onto Hamlet—it certainly isn't.

What it is: a fine example of 19th century Parisian grand opera, with much beautiful music. In scene after scene, lovely lyrical arabesques lead into macabre and dramatic passages, all here brightly rendered by the impeccable Met orchestra under the swiftly paced direction of Louis Langrée. The Hamlet story, much of the essence of which is retained, turns out to be excellent material for this sort of music, which while it may not be absolutely the most divine opera music ever written, has many virtues that are showcased extremely well in this production.

The slinky clarinet (or what I thought was a clarinet) solo accompanying the first part of the "Murder of Gonzago" scene, which sounded remarkably like a saxophone, turned out to be—a saxophone! Apparently Thomas felt the newly invented instrument was perfect for the leering pantomime with which Hamlet endeavors to catch the conscience of the king. The play-within-a-play scene was the climax of the production—funny and spectacular.

Simon Keenlyside, in the title role, lived up to his hype. The charismatic British baritone slips into Hamlet like he's played the role all his life. Slumping, drinking, raging, he positively seethes with the moral paralysis at the center of the story, his voice fluting between passion and control. In the Hamlet-Gertrude scene he addresses his mother repeatedly, bitingly, as "Madame," then softly and sadly as "ma mère"—just one example of the way Thomas's music effectively conveys the characters' psychology; and with a singer whose acting skills match the high standards of his singing, the creators' skills are effectively highlighted—both Thomas's music and the affecting libretto, by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier, who were also responsible for the books of much better known operas like Gounod's Faust and Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann.

However, Marlis Petersen as Ophélie nearly stole the show, first in her early love scene with Hamlet and especially in her long, showstopping solo mad scene, which is so over-the-top I started to laugh even while appreciating her liquid tone and wonderful passagework. I'd heard about her last-minute casting, replacing the ill Natalie Dessay with only three days to prepare, but you'd never guess Ms. Petersen hadn't been on tour with the show all along (it originated in Switzerland, at the Grand Théâtre de Gèneve). She was absolutely delightful.

The intense Jennifer Larmore's grave, dark tones suited the role of Gertrude well, and tenor Toby Spence did a nice job as Laërte. In fact the entire cast was strong, right down to the gravediggers.

Hamlet runs for two more performances, April 5 and April 9, at the Metropolitan Opera.

Photo of Marlis Petersen by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

Theater Review (Boston): Adding Machine: A Musical at Speakeasy Stage

Friday, March 26th, 2010

My sojourn in Boston has given me, not for the first time, the opportunity to see a show that was well-received in a major New York production that I missed. So, while I can't compare Speakeasy's production of Adding Machine: A Musical to the multi-award-winning New York version, I can say that it's a demanding, rewarding, complex, beautiful piece of work. It's graced with a marvelous cast and a rich depth of talent, from the musicians and costumes to the lighting and sound and everything in between.

Basing their work on Elmer Rice's Expressionist play from 1923, creators Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith have accomplished a number of things with Adding Machine: A Musical. One is solving the puzzle of how to put numbers into song with style. Schmidt, a skilled sound designer as well as a composer, sets the tone with the prologue and its precision timing. The cast hammers through a day in the life of a retailer's accounting department circa 1923 with robotic determination but all-too-human frustration.

"In numbers," goes the message, "the mystery of life can be revealed." Full of difficult intervals and polyrhythms, the music crescendos to a nightmarish peak; then, suddenly, all the noise drops away and the focus comes down to two people, a bean-counter and sagging Everyman named Zero (Brendan McNab), and his assistant, the comely but slightly blowsy Daisy.

And then Mr. Zero comes home, where he silently endures the chatter and criticism of his frustrated wife, whose plaint, "I want to go downtown," epitomizes her clotted dissatisfaction with her constricted middle-class life. Amelia Broome delivers the intricately metered quasi-operatic number in spectacular fashion. This is difficult music but she, along with the rest of the cast, makes it look easy throughout. Away from the wife, Zero is relieved: "I dream in figures/They don't ask questions of me." It doesn't hurt that Schmidt and Loewith have crafted Rice's original words into melodies and meters that seem to pulse and rise and fall with the rhythm of thought, even when those thoughts are about the comfort of numbers.

The music doesn't always follow the rhythms of natural speech, however, and that too is fitting. In an Expressionist piece, traditional plot and naturalistic dialogue are often sacrificed so that the characters may express their psychologies more directly, closer to the heart, if less "realistically." And the psychologies of these people are frightfully disturbed. Everything about the production mirrors the psychosocial difficulties of the times, so much like ours, in which "profit is the ultimate goal." New ways of thinking and measuring were replacing the old – symbolized by the adding machine of the title, which, as it happens, is putting Mr. Zero out of a job.

I looked back into history and was surprised to realize that Rice's original play predates both Fritz Lang's classic Expressionist film Metropolis and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, not to mention Sartre's No Exit. Unlike some machine age classics, The Adding Machine has humor, preserved here in a number of scenes, easing the grimness of the tale. But like them, it's no walk in the park. In fact there's not a touch of green anywhere (and no sign of the existence of any children). From the ghastly red and white stripes of the cold opening to the featureless white of the afterlife, nothing has warmth and true meaning, except numbers, which can't love you back. Only in Daisy's blooming name – Daisy Dorothea Devore, in full – is there any promise of life.

But a name isn't enough; brazen violence is the only way Zero can escape his soul-numbing predicament. Two of the other main characters also use extreme measures to break free, including Shrdlu (the intense and golden-voiced John Bambery), a passionate young man Zero meets in prison. A suffocating piety was Shrdlu's own pre-prison prison, and he has thought long and hard about right and wrong, but nothing gets decided here.

On trial for his own crime, Zero cries out in stark melody, "I'm like anyone else/What would you do?" There's no adequate answer, and he gets none. Yet when confronted with something that looks like salvation, and even love, he's overcome by disgust and rejects the existential "freedom" on offer and its embodiment in love in the person of Daisy (the wonderful Liz Hayes, who, incidentally, does a fabulous working-class Barbra Streisand).

In 1984, Orwell's lovers Winston and Julia are doomed by the police state; but Rice's Zero and Daisy get clobbered by Zero's own misguided conscience. In a way it's even more sad. Frustration seems to await no matter what, and in the powerful climactic scene, a lurid assembly line of souls offers, again, no way out.

Somehow, through the magic of theater, this bleak and barren story becomes an astonishingly refreshing and rewarding experience. Beautifully acted and sung, and sensitively directed by Paul Melone, with music brilliantly performed by a band of three led by pianist Steven Bergman, it's a triumph. Don't miss it. It runs through April 10 at the Boston Center for the Arts. Visit the Speakeasy Stage website for tickets, or call the box office at 617-933-8600.

Photos by Mark L. Saperstein.

Theater Review: Happy in the Poorhouse

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

Playwright/director Derek Ahonen and the Amoralists specialize in "going there" – that is, where other troupes usually dare not tread. In Happy in the Poorhouse "there" includes constipation, an unconsummated marriage, a half-infantile little sister, and a fight involving a paraplegic. It also – like Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera sequel – means going to Coney Island.

Fresh off their critically acclaimed (including by this critic) Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, the Amoralists have picked up and re-settled in Coney, where pugilist Paulie "The Pug" (James Kautz), an over-30 would-be pro fighter trying to make ends meet as a bouncer, and his wife of eight months, Mary (Sarah Lemp), are preparing to welcome home Paulie's old buddy Petie "The Pit," who is also Mary's ex-husband, from the war in Afghanistan.

Ahonen is very skilled at writing characters and dialogue that are larger and louder than life yet reflect with an awkward accuracy the universally recognizable aches and pains of the human heart. In the long opening scene Paulie and Mary hash through their inability to truly unite despite loving each other, a battle with which she's clearly losing patience. And it's not just Paulie's unwillingness to have sex, it's what lies behind it, in both of their pasts.

Paulie: "…it's like I'm thinking of you when we was kids. Back when we was building them forts and hiding from them imaginary bad guys. I'm seeing you at six…skipping around on the pogo stick across the street. That's when I first knew I loved you…"

And shortly thereafter:

Mary: "The only reason I don't wander around with the lustful eyes is because I know it will destroy your sad heart and I'm a good person who don't want to see your cookies crumble down the fire escape."

This is Ahonen at his best, and he has two fiery actors making it all shine.

Now, "going there" is all very well. Pied Pipers went where it went with enough focus to sustain itself. Happy in the Poorhouse, though, goes too many places. It has a lot of fun getting there, with memorable characters, much humor, and the kind of elevated working-class writing, self-conscious yet honestly poetic, that marks this playwright as a writer of great talent, and an evident nostalgia for the unsubtle big style of writers of the 1930's. And the troupe is up to the challenge of living his words, allowing the writing to transform their bodies into giants: often shouting, often laughable and stereotyped and overcooked, but acutely touching in the way the best cartoon characters can be.

What's missing – not throughout, but for significant stretches of both acts – is focus. More characters pile on, announcing themselves with overdone aria-like bombast, and some seem to be there just for local color. Rochelle Mikulich is delightful as Paulie's country-singer little sis, and Matthew Pilieci deserves notice as Mary's preening mailman brother. But the structure feels imposed, the flow uneven.

The satisfying ending and the attention-grabbing fun on the way there make this, on balance, a show I can recommend, but with distinct reservations. Happy in the Poorhouse runs through April 5 at Theatre 80 St. Marks, NYC. Visit that Theatre 80 St. Marks website for tickets.

Photo by Larry Cobra

Theater Review: Glee Club by Matthew Freeman

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

With the popularity of Fox's TV show Glee, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that a "glee club" traditionally meant an all-male choir (often based at a college) singing witty arrangements of pop and traditional songs, chorus-style (i.e. without choreography). That's the sort of glee club Matthew Freeman shows us in his new one-act play by that name.

This particular glee club consists of a group of grown men in a small town in Vermont who meet weekly to sing under the leadership of pianist Ben. This club has one thing going for it: an excellent new song, actually written by Stephen Spieghts, who plays Ben, which they're preparing to sing for a group of retirees — one of whom is the club's main financial sponsor. So the stakes are high. The problem: Hank (Tom Staggs), the group's star singer and soloist, has just decided to quit drinking, and it turns out he can sing only when drunk.

It's an absurd but potentially amusing premise. As an increasingly angry Ben tries to lead the group through a rehearsal of the song, he's repeatedly interrupted by his own pickiness and the men having various failures. This first scene has a number of funny bits, some earmarks of a zany ensemble piece to come.

But that impulsive energy screeches to a halt once the men discover and start dealing with Hank's not-drinking problem. The play devolves into a couple of modestly funny jokes stretched over much too long a time. There's lots of yelling and cursing, without the development of character that makes such moments anything but annoying. Yes, we're shown that Mark is going through a bitter divorce, Stan is a milquetoast, and Nick has a mean streak, but not to the point that they earn their moments or our sympathy.  The only really appealing character is Paul (Steven Burns), an apparent serial killer whose chilling non sequiturs always draw a laugh.

The situation makes little sense; for one thing, who'd stay in a community glee club run by such an angry, bitter man as Ben? For another, he keeps stopping the rehearsal to criticize the men for flaws that we, the audience, can't hear; that's funny (or at least telling) once or twice, but fast loses its power to amuse us or drive the story. The actors do their best with the weak material, but little good results besides some isolated funny lines.

On a positive note, the song, though too long in coming, is delightful when we finally hear it. Half earnest and half silly, it perfectly captures the spirited zaniness the script only hints at, and sends us into the street with a happy tune in our hearts.

Glee Club is presented by Blue Coyote and runs at the Access Theater, 380 Broadway, New York, through April 3. For tickets please visit Smarttix or call 212-868-4444.

Theater Review: Forgotten by Pat Kinevane at the Irish Arts Center

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

Every now and then you see something truly unique, and Pat Kinevane's one-man show Forgotten qualifies. A blend of Irish character studies and Japanese Kabuki theater, it is a superb showcase for this exceptionally warm and generous performer. Under the firm direction of Jim Culleton, he casts an effective spell, mingling the sadness of growing old without due respect (all four characters are over 80) with joyful recollections of youth and moments of high grief.

Some segments work better than others; for one thing, the female characters come across more richly than the male. And in spite of a helpful glossary in the program, some of the references to Irish culture and language will elude typical American audiences. Too, the beauty of the Kabuki movements Mr. Kinevane uses to transition between scenes doesn't seem quite enough to explain their existence. But on the whole, this disjunction didn't bother me; the happy temptation is to always give this work the benefit of the doubt, swept up as one is in its imaginative evocations of the lives of these aged survivors.

The insistent music (by Brian Byrne) and sensitive lighting function almost as characters in themselves. So does Mr. Kinevane's heaving, shiny, nearly naked body, painted in black Japanese figures. So does his face, gradually painted into a white mask by one of the characters, the make-up obsessed Eucharia, once scullery-maid to the other female character, Dora. But the real star of the show, besides Mr. Kinevane himself, is his language; he both captures and heightens the thrum and sigh of these folks' speech, from gruff Flor to mild Dora. All live now in separate nursing homes.

Flor sees visions: "Holy Mary is under me bed. She is, under. I saw her last Monday, over there in a long white coat and a blue band on her neck. Snowey skin, and a head of the darkest hair. She was crying like a girl and kept saying she was lonely." Later, Dora recalls the preamble to her youthful affair with man married to a woman perfectly named Petra: "…he positively altered the hue of the spaces about him. Absorbed everything. A piece of chess. Soot hair. Hands unspoiled. Face, flawless. But she teased him down the path of middle age and emptiness. Expertly."

More than a play, it's poetry, and it's an immersive experience. That's no mean trick for one performer to pull off. Forgotten runs through March 7 at the Irish Arts Center in New York, and then returns to Ireland, with further international dates to be announced. For tickets please visit Smarttix or call 212-868-4444.

Theater Review: Charles L. Mee’s Fêtes de la Nuit

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Naked Goddess France in a tub, three silent Graces, and a stately tango usher us into the romantic arena of Charles Mee's Paris. To use two appropriately French-derived words, Fêtes de la Nuit is a collage of vignettes on the theme of love, but it's more visceral, and rewarding, than the typical movie of intertwined stories like Valentine's Day.

We'll call it a play for want of a better word, but it's more of a theatrical celebration, scene after scene of a richly observed and finely sketched world where romantic love is subject number one, with sex, art, and the character of a great city clustering close behind. A woman waits in a café for the love of her life; she hasn't met him yet but is saving a seat for as long as it takes. A roué leads a rapt group on a tour of the gardens of Paris and other important places in the history of his colorful love life. An art class, a fashion show, a lecture on the history of coffee – these are just a few of the show's elements, but the less stagy moments are just as affecting. Three people on a park bench grope each other sensuously until the middle one slips away, satisfied she's brought the other two together. A spurned lover tried to re-seduce her ex. A lonely man dances with his coat. Almost magically, these characters whom we only glimpse come brightly alive, exuding sorrow, angst, joy in turn. 

The large ensemble cast includes singers, dancers, and deaf actors, and is virtually without a weak link. Kim Weild's intimate yet expressive staging moves us effortlessly from café to park to catwalk to dreamscape. Of special note is the smoky score and sound design, by Brian H. Scott, but all the technical elements measure up to the high quality of the performances. With no intermission, the show goes on a touch too long. I wouldn't want to be the one to have to choose what to cut, though.

I highly recommended this show for anyone with an appreciation for life's pleasures. Only small children and people who don't like nudity on stage should stay away. It's a perfect valentine for yourself, your lover, your friends. Fêtes de la Nuit runs through Feb. 27 at the Ohio Theatre. Tickets at Brown Paper Tickets.

Photos by Jill Usdan. 1. (L-R): Catherine dies of love: Jessica Green (Catherine) and Khris Lewin (Roland). 2. (L-R): Lartigue (Babis Gousias) leads the merriment.

Theater Review: Clybourne Park

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Note: See the end of this review for a discount code for tickets to Clybourne Park.

At nearly 40, Playwrights Horizons is such an established part of New York's not-for-profit Off-Broadway pantheon that it's easy to take it for granted and forget that it has a special mission, as indicated in its very name: to foster and develop excellent new plays and playwrights. The current production of Bruce Norris's poetically written and smartly plotted Clybourne Park bodes well for the new decade – for Playwrights Horizons, at least, if not for the chances of fundamental change in race relations in America.

Two clever ideas root the play. First, Mr. Norris looks back half a century to Lorraine Hansberry's iconic A Raisin in the Sun, about an upwardly mobile black family – and depicts the other side. A white family in a lily-white, primly racist middle class neighborhood have sold their house to a black family, eliciting resistance, first euphemistic and then raw, from the community embodied by the deliciously sleazy Karl (the effective Jeremy Shamos, seen recently as the cautious priest in Creature).

Badly damaged by the death of their war-veteran son, angry and repressed Russ (Frank Wood, who won a Tony for Side Man) and Bev (the superb Christina Kirk, who did fine work in the excellent Telethon last year) are packing up and leaving the neighborhood behind, along with, they hope, their sorrows. Bev is a quintessential 1959 period piece, a liberal-minded woman who believes intellectually in the equality of the races and takes pride in her "friendship" with her black housekeeper Francine (the quietly explosive Crystal A. Dickinson), but still talks down to Francine and her husband Albert (the smoldering Damon Gupton) without being aware of it.

The play's second original conceit is setting the second act 50 years later, in the present time, with the same actors playing different roles. Now they are a batch of youngish people haggling over what initially seem like trivial details of the design of a new house. The couple who want to tear down and rebuild are white, the couple who object are black, and the ties to the story of 50 years earlier slowly materialize as this much faster paced, funnier, but ultimately equally powerful second half progresses. By the time a contractor (played by an utterly transmogrified Mr. Wood) digs up the old trunk Russ had buried in the yard and plops the baggage of the ages literally on center stage, we've seen just how the ugliness of America's never-ending racial "conversation" has transformed over the decades – transformed, but hardly died down. Aided by Pam MacKinnon's commendably transparent direction and fine performances all around, Mr. Norris has dramatized his perceptive view of these changes (and lack thereof) with wit, skill, and heart.

It would seem a little dull of me not to put Clybourne Park in a bit of contemporary perspective, given that I've recently covered two other major plays on the subject of race. David Mamet's Race is minor Mamet, effective as far as it goes, and with some very worthwhile performances; yet after chewing over its provocations, one comes away feeling that one hasn't heard anything much really new. More satisfying all-around is The Good Negro, which I saw this winter in a very good Boston production. That play, however, is constructed (and was directed) in a consciously artful manner. Clybourne Park never feels self-conscious; it deals with larger-than-life issues with compelling life-sized characters and naturalistic dialogue – the hardest kind to write.  It's a marvelous accomplishment.

Clybourne Park runs at Playwrights Horizons through March 7. See below for a discount code.

Photos by Joan Marcus. 1) L to R: Damon Gupton, Crystal A. Dickinson, Annie Parisse, Jeremy Shamos. 2) L to R: Christina Kirk, Frank Wood.


Blogcritics reader discount: Use code "CPGR"
Limit 4 tickets per order. Subject to availability.

Order by February 21 with code CPGR and tickets are only:
$40 (reg. $65) for all performances Jan 29-Feb 14
$50 (reg. $65) for all performances Feb 16-March 7
Order online at www.playwrightshorizons.org. Use code CPGR.
Or:
Call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily)
Or:
Print this page and present it at the Ticket Central box office, 416 West 42nd Street (Noon-8pm daily).

Theater Review (Boston): [title of show]

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

[title of show], the little musical that referenced itself all the way to a 2008 Broadway run, is enjoying a solid New England premiere in a SpeakEasy Stage production at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Originally, Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book) played themselves in the process of creating, revising, expanding, and taking to ever-greater heights the show itself, with the help of two actress friends. The self-referentiality is constant and provides much of the meat of the show: ("Susan, you're quiet." "Well, I didn't have a line until now"…"It's OK, Larry, we worked it out with the union so you can talk.") Cute, clever, and different, the show also boasted some of the best theatrical lyric writing that's come along in a while, along with much comedy, many (perhaps a couple too many) in-jokes, and, mercifully, almost no schmaltz.

Does the show work outside the city of its birth? This production proves that it can. The struggle to create something new, to express oneself, and to touch people is universal; New York just happens to be a place with an unusually large concentration of people with an inexplicable desire to do so through theater.

Happily, the Boston version has two gifted musical comedy performers at its center. Jordan Ahnquist and Joe Lanza furrow and shimmy their way through a lighthearted yet soulful dramatization of friendship and the creative process, with agility, panache, and musicality. Both have the ability to command the stage without hamming (though Mr. Lanza is a more than credible ham when he wants to be).

Val Sullivan and Amy Barker as Susan and Heidi give the boys a run for their money in grace and charm (and acting chops). Their voices, though, especially Ms. Barker's, were on the weak side; perhaps it was an amplification or monitoring issue, but there were also some intonation problems during four-part harmony sections. These flaws marred a few of the musical numbers a bit. However, Ms. Sullivan milked the wackiness of her role to very funny effect, and Ms. Barker sparkled in her more straightforward part. And the sterling, deadpan work of music director Will McGarragan, behind the piano as Larry, shouldn't go unmentioned either.

It's not an especially long show, but it feels a little pudgy around the middle to me. I found myself growing a little impatient with how quotidian it gets at times. The whole concept is that it's a show about the trials, tribulations, and details of producing a show, right down to the filling out of forms; but these bouts of musicalized realism now and then interrupted the dramatic arc of the story, such as it is, and grew a tiny bit tiresome.

Nonetheless, overall it's a delightful evening of theater, with loads of energy, sprightly staging by director Paul Daigneault, smart and boisterous choreography by David Connolly, and very well-executed technicals, including impressive sound (Aaron Mack) and lighting (Jeff Adelberg) and Seághan McKay's perfectly timed projections. Most of all, the whole cast, and especially the two brilliant leads, take us on a joyful, funny, and refreshing ride.

[title of show] runs through Feb. 13 at the Boston Center for the Arts. Ticket prices vary; visit the website or call 617-933-8600.

Photo: Todd H. Page

Theater Review (Boston): The Good Negro by Tracey Scott Wilson

Monday, January 18th, 2010

That’s right: Boston. I’m here for three months, four days a week or so, working as an editor at Book of Odds. So of course I’m taking the opportunity to check out some Boston theater. And I can't think of too many better ways to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we observed this past weekend, than to attend a performance of Tracey Scott Wilson's critically acclaimed The Good Negro. This also happened to be the opening weekend of the play's Boston premiere. It's the first play I've seen in Boston since my time here in the dimly remembered 1980s, but if it's characteristic of the quality of Boston's homegrown theater, I have a lot to look forward to during my stay in 2010.

After its critically acclaimed run at the Public Theater in New York last year, this award-winning exploration of the Civil Rights movement focused well-deserved attention on its author. The new, debut production in this even more northern city, with its own racially charged history, bodes well for the 2010 season of Company One, a resident troupe at the Boston Center for the Arts, where a full house greeted the play on Saturday night with whoops and cheers even before the performance had begun.

The audience's high hopes were not misplaced. This is a solid production of a very good play, brought to life by an excellent cast. It succeeds in humanizing the civil rights leaders who too often appear in history books as pure angels of perseverance and moral clarity. For example, it's fairly well known today that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a philanderer, but here we witness Rev. James Lawrence (the charismatic Jonathan L. Dent) – roughly based on Dr. King – struggling in a very human way with this major character flaw even as he doggedly pursues his vision of equality and freedom for his people.

It's 1962, and after unsuccessful attempts to galvanize the Movement in several other cities, Rev. Lawrence has arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, "the most segregated city in America," with his lieutenant, the emotional minister Henry Evans (the impressive Cliff Odle). They're joined by a newcomer, Bill Rutherford (Cedric Lilly), just arrived from Europe and something of a dandy. Though out of touch with the daily struggles and religious zeal of blacks in the American South, Rutherford brings badly needed organizational skills, so the three do their best to get along, with volatile and often humorous results. Concisely handled in the script, this interplay provides an important strand of the drama, focusing attention on the highly imperfect natures of the civil rights leaders who became legends.

One thing the leaders must find is a "good Negro" – a figurehead victim of racial injustice with a spotless character as well as a moving story. In Birmingham they encounter Claudette Sullivan, beaten and arrested for allowing her four-year-old daughter to use a whites-only bathroom. Not only is Claudette tossed in jail, the little girl too spends hours in lockup. Educated, well-spoken, living a quiet life without troublesome associations or activities, Claudette (the quietly dignified Marvelyn McFarlane) seems perfect. Unfortunately her husband Pelzie (the superbly smoldering James Milord) isn't at all keen on subjecting himself and his family to the murderous dangers of the spotlight, and with very good reason.

All this takes place under the watchful eyes (actually the electronic ears) of two FBI agents, who bug the Movement's offices and enlist the prejudiced but not entirely unreasonable Tommy Rowe (the excellent Greg Maraio) to infiltrate the local KKK, hoping to head off any violence. They also do everything they can to impugn the characters of the civil rights leaders, leading to a powerful confrontation between the philandering Lawrence and his sturdy wife, Corinne (the very fine Kris Sidberry) – but also, ironically, to shocking violence. It comes in a masterly stroke of surprise, and we spend the play's last few scenes aquiver.

Boston area theatergoers have a great way to start their year and this well-acted, well-directed production deserves attention beyond the Martin Luther King Day celebration. If you're in the area, don't miss it.

The Good Negro runs through Feb. 6 at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Cabaret Review: The Truth About Love…and the Usual Lies with Jessica Medoff and Michael Bunchman

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Like the prose poem, the art song can seem a neglected foster child. A song but not a pop song, it typically has the musical sophistication and seriousness we associate with the great traditions of classical and romantic music, but its subject matter can be frothy as well as fiery, humorous as easily as heavy. But American composers like Aaron Copland and Charles Ives are generally better known for instrumental or choral works than for their art songs, while even many classical music lovers may not know Franz Schubert's stunning song cycle Winterreisse, an important progenitor of the genre.

Soprano Jessica Medoff, the fabulous Sorceress in Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas a year ago, showcased another side of her ability in The Truth About Love…and the Usual Lies. Weaving art songs and show tunes together, she and her husband, the very talented pianist Michael Bunchman, presented a song cycle of their own on the inexhaustible subject of love. While I know a bit about art songs, something about musical theater, and even some Schubert, I cheerfully admit I didn't recognize many of the selections. Cheerfully because it made the show edifying as well as enjoyable. I wasn't familiar with Copland's settings of poems by Emily Dickinson, and here was the lovely "Heart we will forget him." I didn't know the American composer William Bolcom's witty ditty "Toothbrush Time" – here it was. Another revelation: Jason Robert Brown's "Stars and the Moon."

A highlight for me was Kurt Weill's "Surabaya Johnny," a hyper-passionate wail that can really take the measure of a singer; Ms. Medoff was all over that thing like a hungry lioness. "I Don't Care Much" from Cabaret was equally intense in a quieter way. To lighten the mood we had the very funny "Taylor the Latte Boy" together with its answer, "Taylor's Response" (sung artfully by Mr. Bunchman from the piano). The overrated Avenue Q has given us one lasting tune, the plaintively sweet "There's a Fine, Fine Line," sung by Ms. Medoff with understated sensitivity.

One remarkable thing about the show is the two performers' seamless connection; it's as if they can read each others' minds, piano and voice flowing together in perfect sympathy. This makes just about any song they perform something more than the sum of its parts. It reminded me of seeing a longstanding piano trio or string quartet, or a singing group consisting of siblings – a conductorless ensemble breathing together as if one creature. During the quietest passages the piano occasionally drowned out the voice, but this was not the performers' fault. The operatically-trained Ms. Medoff has a finely calibrated control, equally steady from pianissimo to fortissimo, and the program showed off her range without going overboard. The purpose wasn't to impress (or didn't come across that way), but to amuse and delight, and maybe introduce us to some unfamiliar but very worthwhile material. And that it did.

The duo has put together a few such cabaret cycles. If you have an opportunity to see this one, or anything else they do, grab it!

Opera Review: The Barber of Seville at the Bleecker Street Opera

Monday, December 28th, 2009

New York music fans loudly lamented the passing of the long-running Amato Opera earlier this year. Despite a reputation for uneven quality, the little family-run "opera house that could" had been an East Village institution since 1948, presenting stripped-down productions of operatic standards and charging low ticket prices while giving rising singers an opportunity to hone their craft.

Amato veterans have wasted no time rising from the ashes. Not one but two companies have emerged to wear the Amato's mantle. One, the Bleecker Street Opera, has found a home at the relatively spacious downstairs theater at 45 Bleecker Street, and I attended the second performance of its second production, Rossini's Barber of Seville, last night. The staff seemed unprepared for the full house. Everything was a little disorganized, and the show started late. The Rosina (Malena Dayen) was recovering from bronchitis. The Bartolo was a last-minute substitute who needed line cues from conductor/music director David Rosenmeyer. Mr. Rosenmeyer himself had been a late addition to the team after the unexpected departure of Paul Haas. And with all that, what did we get? Not technical perfection, it's true, but a thoroughly enjoyable and in some respects exceptional production, thanks to the cast of superb singers, the hardworking Mr. Rosenmeyer and his mini-orchestra, and a talented production team led by stage director Teresa K. Pond.

William Browning was a simply glorious Figaro, with a suave and powerful baritone, a solid yet agile stage presence, and a constant twinkle in his eye; his tremendous, antic "Largo al factotum" set a high bar. Anthony Daino brought a droll, Depardieu-esque assurance to Count Almaviva, with a sweet, sunny tenor. And Ms. Dayen, who like Mr. Rosenmeyer hails from Argentina, imbued Rosina with a fluid, coquettish energy, making her more than an equal to the scheming but good-hearted Count and the brash barber. No delicate flower was this Rosina, and I could detect little if any evidence of any lingering illness in Ms. Dayen's wonderful singing; if anything she seemed to strengthen as the evening wore on.

In a larger setting, the quality of acting in an opera like this – while important – can take a back seat. Not so in an intimate space, but the acting in this production was exceptional, as was the singers' diction. Whatever few words of Italian you may know – even if they don't go beyond "presto" and "piano" and "stanza" – you'll hear every one of them clearly.

The orchestra, though only about fifteen pieces, is a considerable step up from the tiny combos that accompanied Amato productions, and the musicians acquitted themselves very well, playing with verve and skill; the winds sparkled, and even the strings sounded generally in tune despite being so few in number.

Best of all, with a small house like this, there are virtually no bad seats, and everyone gets to feel up close and personal. It's quite different from somewhere like the Met, where everything is so fancy and grand. This is gritty opera, just the basics, but what crowd-pleasing basics they are.

The Barber of Seville plays Saturdays at 3 PM and Sundays at 7 PM through January 17. Click here for ticket information or call Telecharge at 212-239-6200.

Theater Review: Fault Lines by Rebecca Louise Miller

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

It's nice, for a change, to go to a cramped little New York City theater and see a play that's not about cramped little twenty-somethings living in a cramped little New York City apartment. Not that our grungy behemoth of a hive-town isn't a cauldron of fuel for creativity – it sure as hell is. But, loath as we can be to admit it, there's life outside the city, a lot of it. And that life can be very similar to our own – indeed recognizably human in surprisingly many ways!

Fault Lines, inspired by the true story of the Polly Klaas kidnapping, takes us to the Northern California home of Bethany, a 32-year-old mother of twins receiving a visit from two childhood friends. Though nervous and hyper, chatty Bethany is also a distinctly West Coast type: new-agey without being self-consciously fashionable about it. Over a compact and fast-paced hour, what seems at first an innocent get-together of old girlfriends is revealed, bit by bit, to be something far more significant. As girls, the three – along with a now-absent fourth – shared a trauma that has bonded them for life.

Homey Bethany, played with acute sensitivity by the excellent Jenna Doolittle, is joined first by bitter, angry Kat (Anaïs Alexandra, who is a skilled actress but could stand to tone her performance down a tad to suit the tiny size of the theater). Then Jessica (the playwright Rebecca Louise Miller) arrives, a jet-setting activist the course of whose life and work has been set by the nationally famous crime the girls witnessed twenty years earlier. She's tailed by a dogged but sensitive TV reporter (Tobin Ludwig) seeking interviews with the women.

Layers of story lurking beneath the obvious methodically come to light: Jessica's political activism has had an unwanted effect on Kat's family; Bethany, in a kind of religious fervor, has been seeing ghosts and consorting with the enemy. It all cascades towards a satisfying, thought-provoking finish.

The pleasures of this production are several. The enjoyable performances and David Epstein's moody, appropriately ambient direction solidly support Ms. Miller's skillful storytelling and realistic, witty, and pointed dialog. The set, sound, and lighting create suitably sombre moods, though the vivid personalities of the characters and the sparkling dialogue never let the seriousness of the story sink to the maudlin.

Fault Lines runs through Dec. 19 at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre in the Abingdon Theatre Complex (312 West 36 St.). Tickets are $20 and can be reserved by calling TheaterMania at 212-352-3101 or online.

Theater Review: Race by David Mamet

Monday, December 14th, 2009

The proximity of the recent Oleanna revival just two blocks away makes David Mamet's new play feel just a smidgen formulaic. In both, an angry young woman betrays her mentor because of a grievance for which he is culpable only in an abstract, class-informed way. The thing is, Mamet is so good at provocative audience-baiting dialogue, and Race's major characters so acutely finessed by his cast (he also directed), that it doesn't much matter that we've pretty much heard this story before.

Susan, a pretty young black law associate, spends a chunk of the first act hovering silently over the action as the two partners at her firm, white Jack and black Hank, discuss whether to take a racially charged case that another law firm has just given up on. Charles Strickland, a well-known, wealthy burgher, stands accused of raping a young black woman. He claims the sex was consensual and eventually convinces Jack and Hank of his innocence, but otherwise he's the client from hell, poetically guilt-wracked over societal and psychological injustices.

 


Richard Thomas is excellent in the role, though I found myself wishing he had a bit more to do. The main action is in the play of ideas, where James Spader's Jack and David Alan Grier's Hank own the show. These two intellectual heavyweights on the cynical circuit thrust and parry using Susan (a slightly wooden Kerry Washington) as their shiny sabre. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the playwright's famous contrariness, it's Jack, the white partner, who eventually displays the soft underbelly, trusting where he shouldn't have.

On the other hand, it's hard to blame Jack for not knowing he's in a David Mamet play. Hank, for his part, is a little more clear-headed; both black characters, in fact, have a more complete sense of the human predilection for playing every card in one's hand, however charged with danger it may be, and however deep-rooted Jack's own lawyerly cynicism seems at first.

It's nice to know we don't live in Mamet's world. Prejudice and even hate may indeed, as the play suggests, remain endemic in our culture, even in each one of us. But these ills do not entirely define us. Showing compassion, whether guardedly like Jack or openly, doesn't always bring punishment on the sympathizer.

The superb Spader's character gets the fullest development (and many of the best lines) but Grier's Hank is a small, hard marvel, thoughtful yet morally weightless.

I wonder what Thomas, who in my experience seems incapable of turning in a poor performance, might have done with the larger role of Jack. But Spader, whose entire career has till now essentially been on the screen, displays such stageworthy solidity that one imagines he could have been treading the boards for the past 20 years instead. Projecting for a live crowd does take away his trademark basso, but there's plenty of depth in the rough grey matter of Mamet's ever-treacherous landscapes to satisfy most eggheads.

Theater/Cabaret Review: ‘Tis the Season with Vickie and Nickie

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

I don't know about you-all, but I started my holiday season off just right with a trip to Don't Tell Mama for Vickie and Nickie's holiday show.

I hadn't been to the legendary cabaret spot for years and was glad to find the place still going strong. A full house turned up for real-life sisters Lisa and Lori Brigantino, who play Vickie and Nickie, two busy Midwestern moms who take to the stage to delight and entertain with humorous banter (abundant), multi-instrumental musical talents (considerable), and big ol' personalities (wickedly twisted, if all in good family-friendly fun).

Straight from "the prison circuit" and the land of lutefisk – Garrison Keillor fans will know what that is – the pair poke good-natured fun at middle-of-the-road American culture while revving up the crowd with perfectly executed vocal harmonies and musicianship (keyboards, guitar, uke, sax…). In this edition they got the balance between spoof and sincerity just right, heavy on the former, belting out Christmas favorites ranging from straight-up takes on "Feliz Navidad" and "Blue Christmas" to Springsteen and Streisand versions of classic carols, supplemented by a couple of punchy original Vickie and Nickie numbers. Amidst the holiday cheer they also worked in hilariously non-jokey versions of "Under Pressure" and that new camp classic, Beyonce's "Single Ladies," which got the audience shouting along in delight. They've discovered, and nailed, the big secret: playing things more or less straight can get more laughs than a lot of horsing around.

Undercurrents of anger and competitiveness make Vickie and Nickie both campier and realer than they'd otherwise seem, while the Brigantino sisters' high-end musical skills allow them to make the act, with its unflagging energy and common-denominator humor, look easy.

'Tis the Season with Vickie and Nickie had two performances last week at Don't Tell Mama. Visit their website for news of upcoming shows, or just hang around the local women's prison till they show up, bewigged and besparkled, spreading good old-fashioned cheer whatever the time of year.