Posts Tagged ‘theatre’

Theater Review: Seven in One Blow, or The Brave Little Kid

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Based on the Grimm fairy tale, this colorful kids' show with music is a decent hour-long holiday amusement for the little ones.

It could have been more. Like much children's theater, it suffers from over-sweetification rooted in an assumption that anything potentially disturbing or even strange must be excised, like a suspicious freckle, from entertainment designed for children. In this case, though, the result is not so much simplification as scattering; the production is all over the place.

Some of this is for the good, from a theatrical standpoint. The story has been changed in a number of ways, including the addition of a framing device, and given some modern cultural twists having to do with identity.  There's no slaying of monsters or beasties in this version, which is nice, especially for the holiday season. And a number of new characters provide amusing scenery-chewing opportunities for some good actors.

The most random-seeming addition is the Scarlet Pimpernel, shoehorned in from a completely different story but played with pleasingly foppish vanity by Brian Barnhart. A threatening Ogre turns out to be more Shrek-like than dangerous, a witch proves far less scary than that Wicked One of the West, and another feared monster turns out to be something quite smaller and meeker.

In the Grimm (and grimmer) original, a little tailor kills seven flies with one strike, and as a result comes to fancy himself a great hero. Stitching himself a belt bearing the motto "Seven in One Blow," he goes off to seek his fortune. It's a great kids' story because it's all about imagination. Folks all around, including the royal family and some mean giants, believing the motto refers to seven men, honor and elevate the tailor for his battle prowess, but still betray him at every possible opportunity. Like any good kids' hero, he's both brave and clever, defeating powerful enemies by outwitting them. (He also gets the girl.)

In this play the tailor is, reasonably enough, turned into an actual kid, and rather than killing the baddies, as in a traditional quest saga like the Twelve Labors of Hercules or The Wizard of Oz, this hero wins their respect and turns them into allies. It's a questionable plot change, as a) the real world does contain real baddies, and b) sometimes one does have to live by one's wits. But it's a nice excuse for songs, bright costumes, and amusing mugging.

All in all this is a diverting show for kids up to about eight years old. (The nine-year-old I brought gave it the equivalent of one thumb up.)

Seven in One Blow, or The Brave Little Kid runs weekends through Dec. 13 at the Axis Theatre, 1 Sheridan Square, just off Seventh Avenue in Greenwich Village, New York City. The Dec. 11 performance is a benefit for St. Jude Children's Hospital.

Theater Review: She Like Girls by Chisa Hutchinson

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

This smartly observed play about inner-city kids focuses on the sexual awakening of one in particular. Unlike some "ghetto kid" dramatizations, it avoids the sin of trying too hard. In language that's spicy and realistic, playwright Chisa Hutchinson crafts believable characters who are vividly realized by an excellent cast of mostly newbies. The one thing Ms. Hutchinson can't seem to do is think of an ending. But until that disconcerting, disappointing five seconds, the neatly plotted She Like Girls is an entertaining and affecting journey through the troubled life and psyche of Kia (Karen Eilbacher).


Karen Eilbacher as "Kia" and Karen Sours as "Marisol" in the Working Man's Clothes production of She Like Girls. Photo credit: Julie Rossman

A sullen, sensitive teen, Kia befriends an ebullient, outgoing cheerleader, Marisol (Karen Sours), who has discovered a lump in her breast. The relationship develops through a series of concise, well-played scenes. With the help of a kindly teacher (Adam Belvo) and no help at all from her macho old friend Andre (Paul Notice II), Kia finds some ground to stand on. Though plagued by nightmares – including one brilliant scene in which Marisol brings her in for a show-and-tell session that turns into a gay-bashing horror show – Kia discovers first ideals (it shouldn't matter what you're called, just who you are) and then the insane cruelty of the real world when Marisol is beaten and and thrown out of her house by her homophobic mother.

Wisely, Ms. Hutchinson keeps things earthy, leaving the poetic language to the poet Adrienne Rich, who is quoted and invoked as a lesbian icon and guiding spirit – and who actually materializes, because why not?

This isn't a "gay play." It's more or less a traditional (and often quite funny) story about growing up, finding first love, and experiencing the pain and despair of young adulthood. That there's no ultimate redemption isn't what's wrong with the ending; redemption is only one possible conclusion for the human condition.  What's wrong is that the play just stops abruptly, with a violent act that feels neither shocking nor truly sad, just baffling, which snaps off the till-now well-crafted story arc.

Ms. Eilbacher and Ms. Sours give fine, heartbreaking performances, backed by a strong supporting cast. Lavita Shaurice is brilliant as Alia, an alienated straight friend with awesome comic timing. Amelia Fowler scores as Kia's sarcastic but generous mother, bathed in her own complexities, and Mr. Notice is sympathetic and solid in the tough role of Andre. With no weak links in the cast, efficient direction by Jared Culverhouse, an effectively garish graffiti-drenched set (by Kelly Syring and a cast of artists), well-chosen music and sound (Ryan Dorin), and a bit of energetic choreography (Sabrina Jacob), there is, as I said, only one thing missing:

She Like Girls plays through Dec. 30 at the Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster St., New York. Tickets at Theatermania.

Theater Review: A Streetcar Named Desire at BAM Starring Cate Blanchett, Directed by Liv Ullman

Friday, December 4th, 2009

No one does women like Tennessee Williams. It's widely accepted that some of his flamboyantly faded female characters stand in for the playwright himself; perhaps that has something to do with their vividness. Whatever the case, any of these roles provide a field day for a fearless actress.

Few present-day movie stars show such consistent bravery in their performances and their choice of roles as Cate Blanchett. Unlike some transformational actors, Ms. Blanchett has the option, when in a role in which she doesn't have to do much (such as Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings cycle), of seeming to relax and taking over the screen by simply glowing. But there's little call for mere radiance on the stage; there wasn't in the 2006 Hedda Gabler, another Sydney Theatre Company production starring Ms. Blanchett that played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, nor is their any holding back in the company's current production of A Streetcar Named Desire.


Ms. Blanchett's Blanche DuBois is certainly a lovely creature – sparkly-eyed, regally erect, monster-sexy – but thoroughly convincing as the insecure, childish, flirtatious, ungracefully aging southern belle who, having "lost" her family's country estate under mysterious circumstances, comes to live with her pregnant sister Stella (a superb Robin McLeavy) and her husband Stanley Kowalski (a seismic Joel Edgerton) in their humble New Orleans apartment.

Its two rooms separated only by a flimsy curtain, the apartment stands before us in its entirety. Ralph Myers' set, evocatively lit by Nick Schlieper in garish electric yellows and spooky Cajun blues, snugly suggests the Kowalskis' limited working-class horizons. At first startled by the humble surroundings, Blanche adapts handily, if passive-aggressively, and soon takes up with Stanley's friend, the highly moral Mitch (an excellent Tim Richards), who, charmed by Blanche's nighttime glamour, has a rude awakening in store when details of her past emerge.

Streetcar is a somewhat schizophrenic work. The first half plays as an expertly constructed ensemble piece. Unlike most of his zillions of imitators, Williams can do a prodigal-relation-arrives-to-shake-things-up plot without any sense of strain or cliche. His magical ability to fuse consummate craft with utter sincerity reached an apex in a handful of plays, Streetcar being one of them.

But the second half turns into Blanche's show, and while Blanche may be a faded flower, Ms. Blanchett is no shrinking violet, giving us a spectacular, galvanic Blanche. During scene changes, her silhouette can be made out prancing across the stage fully in character. Coming out with the cast for the five curtain calls the audience demanded last night, she looked like a sailing ship that's been dashed against the rocks a few times and is still bobbling upright only through some sort of miracle.

Mr. Edgerton as Stanley, another great Williams role, matches Blanche note for harsh note in their scenes together, trying his damnedest to take her down, using his magnetic masculinity as fervently as she wields her feminine charms. Equally strong is Ms. McLeavy as Stella, embodying sexiness and earth-motherhood in equal measure, holding down the emotional and moral center, often tearful but never weak. Despite no physical resemblance, the two actresses convince as sisters, long-separated but knowing each other all too well.

Is Cate Blanchett's a Blanche for the ages? Hard to say, this soon, but it's powerful and memorable, and this triumphant production is a highlight of the season. From all the way on the other side of the world, the Sydney Theatre Company, run by Ms. Blanchett and her husband Andrew Upton, bravely brings this most American of plays back to America in its full faded glory. The New Orleans accents may be a touch touch-and-go, with lines occasionally hard to make out and Ms. Blanchett's southern drawl marked by a curious semi-lisp (not that these accents are much easier for American actors to master). But the three-plus hours of this nearly flawless production – helmed in inspired, fluid fashion by Liv Ullman (firmly established in a second career as a director) – dash by, leaving us both shaken and stirred.

A Streetcar Named Desire runs through Dec. 20 at BAM.

Theater Review: THIS by Melissa James Gibson at Playwrights Horizons

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Human interaction is a complex, intuitional, frequently absurd jumble of conversation, innuendo, and the unspoken. At the same time, it's broadly predictable: people we know well will seldom surprise us, so that it's memorable when they do.

Dealing with this dual nature of communication is a major challenge for a playwright who wishes to craft realistic dialogue. Generally such a writer wants to dramatize important events in the lives of her characters, while at the same time making the minutiae of their interactions convincingly real. She must accomplish all this with characters known only to her, since we the audience have just met them; without the benefit of the elevated, concentrated language of poetry; and yet in a short period of time. Melissa James Gibson, author of the award-winning [sic], meets this essential challenge of tone, pace, and content nearly perfectly in her new play THIS.

The story skeleton is pretty standard: four friends in their late 30s, three straight and one gay, deal with major life events, catalyzed by infidelity and an exotic new acquaintance. The glory is in the details. Jane's (Julianne Nicholson) husband died a year ago, leaving her with a school-age daughter. Her friend Marrell (Eisa Davis), a brand-new mom herself, has in mind to break Jane out of her widowy slump by introducing her to handsome Jean-Pierre (Louis Cancelmi), a French "Doctor Without Borders."

Meanwhile Marrell's marriage to Tom (Darren Pettie), already troubled, has grown shakier and sexless with the arrival of their new baby. After a party in which a parlor game goes hilariously, frightfully wrong, Tom reveals longstanding feelings for Jane in a brilliantly composed and delivered speech. The "real" game is afoot.

Gibson plays games with our expectations throughout. The rules of the parlor game – so the friends tell Jane, who doesn't like games – are simple, but she objects: "You make them sound simple, which means they're not." That seems a suitable watchword for life, and certainly for this realistically messy tale. Alan (Glenn Fitzgerald) is the gay, single friend whose sexual orientation is the one aspect of his character that isn't "otherizing." (The "annoying" gay friend is hardly the sitcom stereotype.) Alan (with his "dormant Judaism"), Tom, and Jane are white, while Marrell is black, but race comes up only in unexpected yet biting bits.

Everyone has some otherness to submerge or nurse. The four friends met in college, but Tom, the one who works with his hands, was an employee there, not a student. When Marrell confesses to Jane her marital unhappiness, she mentions the lack of sex, but also that "Tom stopped voting… I don't know him anymore." That sort of loose bit of information, like Jean-Pierre's funny phone call scene, doesn't really go anywhere or even make perfect sense, but reveals character while touching on the layer of absurdity that's a part of everything we do to and with one another.

Thanks to Alan's gift of perfect recall, we have a mechanism for seeing through the veils of interpretation different characters pull over the same events. One small imperfection is the self-consciousness of the scene in which we see Alan performing his mnemonic act, introducing us to this important plot point. But creating a character with this ability was an inspired twist.

A sixth character is Louisa Thompson's vast, jumbled set, which in its fullness represents Tom and Marrell's homey loft apartment. Overhung with a huge skylight panel, its large size, lived-in clutter, and two levels echo the complexity of the lives Gibson splatters before us. It's telling that the whole thing fades away (Matt Frey's lighting is very effective) for a sparkling closing scene in which Jane, having at last shaken off some of her burden of grief, addresses her sleeping child in the latter's bedroom. Despite its broad canvas the play is full of such moments: the lonely rattling sound emanating from a wooden bowl cum baptismal font after Marrell learns she's been cheated on; Tom placing the baby monitor on Marrell's piano and returning grimly to his cabinetmaking; Alan helping Jane on with the coat whose broken zipper she hasn't bothered to fix; Jane's sad, broken metaphor, "the wolf is never away from the door, the wolf is the door."

Daniel Aukin, who also directed [sic], does beautiful work here with his superb cast. I'm a firm believer that if you don't notice the direction, the director has done a good job, and just about every scene here feels natural, though powerfully staged at appropriate moments.

THIS continues at Playwrights Horizons through Dec. 13. Order by Nov. 25 with the code THGR to get tickets for only $50 (reg. $65). To order, visit www.playwrightshorizons.org or call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200, open daily noon-8:00 pm.

Photo by Joan Marcus.

Theater Review: Cyrano de Bergerac

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

The story is as familiar as that of the sword in the stone or the vacillating Danish prince. Swashbuckling solider-poet Cyrano loves his winsome cousin Roxane, but despite his valor and popularity among his comrades his huge nose prevents him (or so he is convinced) from being taken seriously in matters of the heart. Learning that his beloved has taken a shine to another soldier, and that the handsome but tongue-tied Christian loves her back, Cyrano swallows his pride and settles for wooing Roxane indirectly by feeding Christian the high-flying, romantic poetry and wit Roxane demands.

The ruse is working, but Colonel DeGuiche, a jealous suitor, sends Cyrano and Christian's unit on a dangerous mission to the front lines just after Christian and Roxane have, with Cyrano's anguished help, hurriedly wed. Misunderstanding and tragedy carry the day, until the truth comes out years later when it's too late.

Though the story is familiar, we don't often get the chance to see it up close on a small stage, and certainly not with as fine an actor as Daniel Wolfe in the lead role. Mr. Wolfe's commanding performance in this Queens Players production – passionate, witty, antic, elastic, full-throated – is nearly enough all by itself to carry the weight of this very long (even though somewhat cut) production of Edmond Rostand's century-old classic. And fortunately, Mr. Wolfe is not alone, getting able backup from Anthony Martinez – who was a spirited Orlando in the company's recent As You Like It – as a suitably comical yet sympathetic Christian, and from a charming if slightly less sure-footed Sarah Bonner as Roxane. Ms. Bonner seemed to warm up as the long evening rolled on, perhaps inspired by Mr. Wolfe's blistering presence.

Of the supporting cast, some are quite good, while others turn in merely adequate performances, and there are one or two glaring failures. A more general problem mars the production as well. It's very difficult to understand what's going on during the lengthy opening scene, which is supposed to give us a cross-section of Parisian society before Cyrano's entrance; though the scene is briskly paced, some dialogue is lost through a combination of poor diction and the echoey sound of the Queens Players' new, larger space in the Long Island City Art Center (you can still smell the paint). Overall the ensemble scenes are prone to weakness. Rostand's picture of the society in which his heroes move, which ought to be sharp as tacks, comes through hazily at best.

But this production is well worth seeing, first for Mr. Wolfe's galvanizing performance, and second for the vision of Queens Players artistic director Richard Mazda, which is penetrating where it counts.  Mr. Mazda directs the production himself, and gives proper stress to a supremely important facet of the play: besides love and society, it's about art itself.

The dual meanings of that little three-letter word merge in Cyrano. The hero is a true artist in both senses. He is a wizard with words, a poet, a playwright, even a kind of "artist" with his sword. At the same time, he is supremely "artful" – a kind of trickster, a deceiver, though one with only the noblest of intentions. The pain that motivates him produces many of the play's comical elements as well as its ultimate tragedy.

Cyrano is among other things a piece of meta-theater. It asks us to believe the unbelievable – that Roxane won't recognize when a literally different voice has takes over beneath her window; that Cyrano can spin fresh, clever rhymes while engaged in a swordfight, and then hack his way through 100 attackers. And it doesn't apologize for asking these things of us; it knows it is a piece of artifice. Rostand's triumph, and here Mr. Wolfe's as well, is to pull us along the whole way, going gladly.

I have a feeling Mr. Mazda wanted to have it both ways: to present the play in as much of its broad, spread-out glory as possible, while bringing the central characters into sharp focus. Perhaps that was too much to ask of a low-budget, Off Off Broadway production and an unevenly skilled company. But the sharp realization of the central story, with an unforgettable performance in the title role, is more than enough to make this a very worthwhile evening of theater. 

Cyrano de Bergerac runs through Dec. 5 at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City, Queens (one stop from Manhattan on the E or V train).

Photos: Cameron Hughes

Theater Review: Disillusioned

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

Susan Hodara's new one-act has a number of the elements of a good dramatic yarn. Unfortunately it also bears the marks of an incompletely integrated and realized vision. The story has promise as a semi-fantastical tale: Bernie, a small-time magician who is seemingly friendless except for an arthritic rabbit, befriends Jane, an even more lonely orphan; in time he adopts her and trains her as his assistant. Their new act and his magic shop are successful enough to keep them in business. Alas, fate has sadder plans for the pair; the theatrical blindness our heroine affects for the magic act becomes real, and that's not the worst of it. Eventually Jane is left destitute, but in the end gets a chance for redemption.

Georgie Caldwell's appealing performance as Jane can't debug the problematic script, however. A string of clichés spoils the awkward opening section, in which Bernie imparts his hard-earned showman's wisdom to his new protégé. Scarves are a dime a dozen; Jane has a fire in her belly; Jane also, like spunky orphans everywhere, is a piece of work.

Voiceovers connecting successive scenes seem both unneeded and cheap, and some lines come out of nowhere, as when Jane tells Bernie she "never meant to break your heart," apropos of nothing I could identify. In a voiceover, after we've seen that Bernie has suffered a stroke, Jane asks, perplexingly, "How could I have known it was a stroke?" Finally, the overall structure is weighed down by a disconnected and too long scene in a shelter, where homeless Jane meets a sympathetic caseworker (Keith Manolo Embler, who, like Mr. Powers, hasn't much to work with).

The character of Jane and Ms. Caldwell's effective performance in the role are the main strong points of this production. With better structure and sharpened dialogue, there could be a powerful story here. You can sense it, like the string of scarves hidden up Bernie's sleeve, itching to come out in shabby, multicolored glory.

Disillusioned has two more performances, 10/22 and 10/25, at Where Eagles Dare Studios in New York.