Theater Review: As You Like It by the Queens Players

Some secrets are more secret than others. The other day I was 115 feet below ground, inside Secret Caverns in upstate New York, marveling at the attraction's 100-foot underground waterfall. Man, is that loud. With abundant, fanciful advertising signage rippling for miles along the nearby roads, Secret Caverns are surely the least secret caverns in these United States.

A bit harder to find is the Secret Theatre. Located in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens, NY, the Secret Theatre is not far from well-known cultural institutions like P.S. 1 and Silvercup Studios. But the two-year-old space is tucked away under the shadow of the elevated number 7 train, set back from a night-desolate street through a loading dock, indicated by a single sign, then another half-hidden sign, then through a lightly marked door… you get the picture.

Manhattan snobs, check your snobbery at that door. The Secret Theatre's current production of Shakespeare's popular comedy As You Like It is as good as any Off Off Broadway Shakespeare you'll find on the more glittery side of the East River, and better than most.

The Queens Players, resident at the Secret, are not to be confused with the Queen's Company, which presents Shakespeare with all-female casts and anachronistic bursts of pop music. This As You Like It does not lure (or repel) with experimental casting or unorthodox interpretation. Extraordinarily well directed by Greg Cicchino, it triumphs with more or less pure Shakespeare.

We'll probably never know whether the Bard's inability to use female actors had anything to do with his attraction to stories that involved young maids disguising themselves as swains. What we can safely say, reinforced by the elastic Claire Morrison's animated and expert performance here, is that Rosalind is one of Shakespeare's most fully realized and interesting female characters.

Banished from the court of the usurping Duke Frederick, she flees into the Forest of Arden accompanied by her moody cousin Celia (the comically smoldering Melisa Breiner-Sanders) and the court Fool, Touchstone (the magnificent Daniel Smith, here channeling John Cleese.)

The forest, also the hiding place of Rosalind's beloved and already banished father, Duke Senior, and his band of loyalists, is at first a "desert" of hunger and exhaustion to the newcomers. But the upbeat Duke (the appropriately stentorian Timothy J. Cox, who also plays the usurper) has fashioned it into a pastoral realm of merry ease, removed from the stresses of court (read: modern) life. Yet the forest's fantastical aura also makes it a fit setting for the play's most famous passage, the "All the world's a stage" speech. Uttered by the melancholy Jaques, it is, among other things, the ultimate exposition of life's meaninglessness. Yet Jaques (Chris Kateff in a knife-sharp performance) is a man apart. Both mocked and humored by the other men of the Duke's company, he cannot, even to the bitter end, share in the rough optimism of his lord, nor the love-soaked banterings and witticisms of the young lovers prancing abundantly about.

And love and wit do triumph. If, as Touchstone lectures, "The truest poetry is the most feigning," it is nonetheless the rhymes carved in the trees by Rosalind's swain, the passionate, lovelorn Orlando (an effective Anthony Martinez), that keep hope burning, not to mention the story.

Mr. Cicchino has a gift for focusing his actors' strengths, and for creating moments of unscripted, silent humor that move the action swiftly along. From his fine cast he draws out a number of standout performances in the smaller roles too, including Michael Henrici as Orlando's cruel elder brother Oliver (and the heavily inebriated and uproariously named Sir Oliver Martext); Griffin DuBois as the besotted shepherd Silvius; the zesty Larissa Laurel as Phebe, Silvius's cantankerous object of desire; a mutely hilarious Amy Newhall as Touchstone's foil, the clueless country wench Audrey; and the delightful Louis Tullo, a welcome newcomer to the New York stage, in two roles, notably a very funny LeBeau. Indeed, despite the dominance of the Rosalind-Orlando storyline, the production is the very model of a modern ensemble piece.

Leave it to Shakespeare, in the loving and crafty hands of a director like Mr. Cicchino, to bring to glorious life the human tapestry in all its poetic good cheer under the rumbling elevated trains of Long Island City.

As You Like It runs only through Sept. 5, so make your plans now. Tickets (call 866-811-4111 if you don't like ordering online) are a piddling $15.  You can't even buy a movie ticket and popcorn for that anymore, but you can get excellent live Shakespeare one subway stop from Manhattan.

Theater Review: A Time to Dance by Libby Skala

Libby Skala based her first solo play, Lilia!, on the life of her late grandmother, the well-known Hollywood actress Lilia Skala. In her wonderful new show, A Time to Dance, she channels her great-aunt, Lilia's younger sister Elizabeth ("Lisl") Polk, who, while attaining less renown, lived a life just as long, eventful, and interesting, if not more so. Out of the 201 productions in this year's New York Fringe Festival, it's one of the small number of must-sees.

Having experienced just about all of the 20th century – both in timespan and in all it had to offer – the half-Jewish Lisl can almost be said to embody the century itself. As Ms. Skala tells it, before becoming a dance therapy pioneer in New York, Lisl grew up in Austria, was sent to Denmark for safekeeping during World War I, contracted and beat tuberculosis, got kicked out of a modern dance studio for the sin of studying ballet, and managed a harrowing (and apparently also magical) escape from the Nazis.

Of course, many people live interesting lives, but few have a descendant as talented and ambitious as Ms. Skala to celebrate them. That she is a confident and graceful dancer is clear from the nearly constant movement she weaves through the hourlong monologue. But what makes the show such a charming entertainment, aside from the meat of the story itself, is her remarkable skill as a comic actor. Pouting, marveling, dancing, raging, worrying, dancing, beating time to the music (from recordings produced by Lisl herself for her dance therapy), mugging, miming, marrying, divorcing, dancing some more, and even finding a kind of true love (in an unexpected but soul-satisfying fashion), the character and the actor fuse until we just about believe that Lisl herself, thick Austrian accent and all, is before us, telling story after story for us to laugh and wonder at.

In a way, it's an old-fashioned biography. Take an interesting life; tell it from the start – Lisl's premature birth and surprising survival – to nearly the end; and allow the audience to marvel at its foreignness while recognizing its universality. A Time to Dance is truly uplifting without being at all saccharine, and that is perhaps the greatest miracle of all.

Top photo: Libby Skala in A Time to Dance, photo by Damon Calderwood.
Bottom photo: Elizabeth Polk in Vienna, 1930s. Public domain.

Theater Reviews: Willy Nilly and MoM at the Fringe

A band of suburban moms unexpectedly achieve the musical success that eluded…Charles Manson.

FringeNYC is here, this year with 201 shows over two weeks. That's right, 201 shows. I plunged right in, attending two full-length musicals last night.

The first seemed timely. With the parole of Charles Manson follower Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, the Manson murders are back in the news, and with the concurrent 40th anniversary of Woodstock it seems an opportune moment to reexamine the values and the meaning of the hippie movement – seriously or otherwise. So what could be more appropriate than "A Musical Exploitation of the Most Far-Out Cult Murders of the Psychedelic Era"?

The word "exploitation," rather than "exploration," clues us in that this is not going to be a serious take on the Manson phenomenon, and that's just fine – I'm all for entertainment in poor taste, if it's funny or interesting. And the first few scenes of Willy Nilly do play as an amusing send-up of both the hippie generation and the "squares" who feared them.

Released from prison, a slightly fictionalized Manson ("Willy," played energetically by Avery Pearson), begins casting his spell on young women. Meanwhile a character representing the prosecutor and Manson chronicler Vincent Bugliosi (played smartly by the playwright and composer Trav. S. D.) narrates, deadpanning lines like "he begins to recruit his harem, one 'chick' at a time" – heavy accent on the "chick." This is crude but funny stuff.

Presented with such enjoyable silliness, we're primed for funny songs as well. The show's first disappointment, then, is that the lyrics are often hard to make out, thanks to unclear amplification and the high volume of the on-stage acid-rock band.

Soon bigger problems arise. Once Willy's harem is complete, the story follows the familiar outline of the Manson Family's march through communal living and music-industry disappointment towards gruesome mass murder. But it turns out, unsurprisingly, that creating a comic version of Manson eliminates any sense of menace from the character. For comedy to succeed, there must be something, on the surface or beneath, to make us uneasy in some way. In this production there's not a whiff of suspense or fear.

Instead, director Jeff Lewonczyk festoons the stage with a big cast infused with manic energy; sight-gag props and colorful period costumes; and effective flower-power choreography (by Becky Byers and Mr. Lewonczyk). Certain comic turns, notably by Daryl Lathon and Mateo Moreno in multiple character roles, amuse and delight. But they sink quickly back into the overall purposelessness of the proceedings. The play aims to skewer the Sharon Tate-Roman Polanski circle as well, but with an instrument so blunt it only makes an ugly bruise, and by the time the Tate-LaBianca murders and the subsequent trial roll around the play has long since fallen apart. At the climax, intended (I think) to suggest the media frenzy around the trial, characters are desperately leaping about, even undressing, amidst a cacophony from the band – anything to find a way out.

Unfortunately, nothing can save this exercise in futile exuberance. Solid acting by many of the cast members, including Ms. Byers, Elizabeth Hope Williams, Adam Swiderski, Michael Criscuolo, and especially Hope Cartelli as Willy's original "old lady," can't save it. The band is fine, but it can't either. Nor can the vigorous, clever choreography, though it's the best thing about the show.

Better singing would have helped – it's generally mediocre – but not nearly enough. After the show I overheard one audience member saying that there were "not enough songs, but also too many songs." I know what he meant.

A better use of your musical dollar would be the flawed but enjoyable MoM, written and directed by Richard Caliban. In this "rock concert musical," five middle-aged suburban moms form a band for fun, only to be bludgeoned by unexpected success. The concert format, in which the women tell their raunchy tale through songs, narration, and just a couple of dramatic scenes, is both a strength and a weakness; it enables a direct connection with the audience, but the stage set, loaded with instruments and pedals, limits the possibilities for movement and drama.

Some of the cast members are musicians as well as actors, notably the always effervescent Stefanie Seskin, whom I know as the front person of the band Blue Number Nine. Yet as a band their musicianship is generally hesitant. (It would probably improve with more rehearsal.) This works fine for the first half of the show, when they are meant to be amateurs playing the local high school. When they become legitimate rock stars, though, supposedly playing stadiums, the not-a-real-band seams show too obviously.

What makes MoM an ultimately winning proposition are certain strong acting performances, especially from Ms. Seskin and the magnetic Jane Keitel, and the singing. Mr. Caliban can be prone to writing juvenile lyrics of the "some make us happy, some make us sad" ilk. But the hooks and punchlines are infectious and amusing (I won't give them away here), and the cast executes multi-part harmonies superbly. On a purely musical basis, then, there's much to enjoy in this show, and since it's loaded with songs, it's hard to go wrong.

FringeNYC runs through Aug. 29. Check the website for dates and times for these shows and the other 199.

Photo credit: Ken Stein/Runs With Scissors

Theater Review: Being Patient: When All You Want is the Sunrise by Kelly Samara

Demonstrating that one is a triple threat in a theater the size of a closet sounds like a tough task. Kelly Samara, playwright, actor, and dancer – also choreographer, and creator of the music she dances to, which really makes her something like a quintuple threat – bravely gives it a go in her new one-woman show, and the result is a small triumph. Tense, gripping, funny, and surprisingly celebratory considering its subject, this hospital one-act is anything but maudlin, and hardly sentimental. Instead it's revealing, rough, and raging.

Dressed in an embarrassingly short hospital gown, Samara plays a hospital patient with an unspecified but worsening and apparently terminal illness. She breaks up a series of monologues with dance numbers that animate the violent psychology lurking behind the scenes.

To be precise, one of the scenes isn't exactly a monologue; in it she talks with an unseen, unheard friend whose chatty but emotion-fraught visit only underscores the gulf between the universe this long-term patient has both entered and created inside the hospital, and the forgetful outside world.

Wandering among various states – drugged, gossipy, fanciful, primally angry – Ms. Samara commands the space, developing her character with a mature, finely calibrated emotional control which lends weight to her script as well. The wordplay in the title isn't just a wee trick; it's an example of the play's wisely crafted language. "Amusement," she philosophizes, is just a cleaned-up word for "distraction." Common words take on entirely different casts when contemplated by a sickening patient confined to a hospital.

Ms. Samara trusts the audience to follow her, through words and movement, along her squirming evolution from impatience to eternal Patient. This trust makes the play an intensely satisfying experience (or "amusement"). So much so that the one time she doesn't trust us – when she concludes a monologue about iguanas and the difference between camouflage and invisibility by stating the obvious – is the one moment she disappoints a little.

As part of Manhattan Repertory Theatre's Summerfest 2009, Being Patient runs for three performances only, closing Friday Aug. 7. A powerful and well-tuned fusion of the many talents of a very crafty artist, it deserves further development and a longer run. In any case Kelly Samara has earned some significant attention.

The Re-Education of a Road Trip Nation

I’ve been driving a lot this summer, but getting behind the wheel is feeling more and more like a Last Days scenario.

I don’t mean the end of the world, although of course that’s possible. I mean the end of an automobile-centric way of life. No one has come up with a convincing solution to the dual problems of finite fuel and climate change. One way or another, it seems likely that we’re going to be giving up our cars – if not this generation, then next.

Being a city dweller, I have a car mostly for weekends and vacation trips. I also need it for work, but only sort of; if I weren’t a part-time working musician, with heavy equipment to lug around to gigs, I’d probably be like most Manhattanites and not own a car at all.

And so, despite being a car owner, I’m a public transportation snob. I think that if you are a patriotic American, or (more important) a patriotic citizen of Earth, and you are not a farmer, you should be living in or near a city and taking public transportation to work. If that’s not practical now, you should be actively planning for it. And the governments of the world should be using carrots, then (eventually) sticks where needed, to aim societies in that direction.

Yet there’s this nice house in the country, see…

Since my mother retired a couple of years ago to her house in Vermont, I find myself imagining retiring there too someday, assuming the house stays in the family. This actually takes quite an effort of imagination, because the prospects of my actually retiring, at any age, seem quite dim. But still. These dreams and pleasures lie deep in our natures. Retiring has to be planned, it may seem like a permanent vacation to some, but it does need to be planned so you know what’s going on and where you’re at! Retirement age people may use the roth ira calculator to help with finding the best plan for them, just because it seems far off doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare.

Having a spread of land that’s our own, whether real or just an aspiration, appeals deeply to our territorial side. Having access, and means, to hit the open road and go where we please when we please, whether it’s to visit distant friends or relatives, spend time with nature, or just get away from something – that goes very deep as well. Perhaps it’s a manifestation of our essential internal conflict. You know the one: between our earthbound reality and our mental capacity to dream to infinity.

Wherever we get them from, these ideas are not easy to give up, especially for Americans. Our foundational frontier tradition and our Eisenhower Interstate Highway System make sure of that.

So if these kinds of dreams have to die, they will die hard. The white picket fence, the second home in the country, the family road trip… whenever I turn the key in the ignition and roll off this once-Dutch island into the vastness of the mainland United States, I can’t help thinking of these hopes and dreams grinding to a halt.

Music Review: Rachel Taylor Brown – Susan Storm’s Ugly Sister and Other Saints and Superheroes

In a perfect world, Brown’s superhero songs would be distributed in goodie bags at Comic-Con.

Rachel Taylor Brown's latest collection of offbeat chamber pop opens with a meditative, hymn-like song about St. Francis and his calling. Then "St. Fina" arrives with a relentless industrial pounding: "Did Jesus love you when you hurt / Like he hurt?" It builds to a repeated call in which the word "Jesus" evolves from the name of a savior to the expletive it's so often used as in daily life.

Brown's bald way with a lyric makes her the rare artsy songwriter whose references one is impelled to look up. Unfamiliar with St. Fina, I discovered that she was a 12th century Tuscan who died in even more gruesome fashion than most saints. (The English-language Wikipedia article on St. Fina needs a good deal of editorial help, but it's charmingly quirky: "She was one of the nicest people on earth," it plainly states, and who are we to question?)

Brown writes biographical sketches of historical and fictional characters in plain, non-ironic lyrics. It's the haunting, off-kilter music, piano-based with industrial flourishes, that makes one listen again, seeking hidden messages. This contrast distinguishes these numbers from biographical songs by rootsy songsmiths like Bruce Springsteen or Willie Nelson, or, for a more musically relevant parallel, Katell Keineg. In most such efforts the writer's perspective on the subject is never in doubt. With Brown, you have to lean in and listen hard.

Given that, she is also capable of hitting hard. "Once a Jew always a Jew," she sings in "Teresa Benedicta Also Edith Stein." "You know Jesus was too / And look what happened to him."

In a perfect world, Brown's superhero songs, which make up half the tracks, would be distributed in goodie bags at Comic-Con. In them she gives equal opportunity to cultural mainstays like Batman ("Bruce Wayne's Bastard Son") and silly sidelights ("Ambush Bug/Reduviidae"). And despite the cartoonish quality of some of these stories, by the time we've arrived at the final track for one more saint tale, "Zoe of Rome," we've had ample opportunity to get the point that saints are superheroes, and vice versa. Both possess miraculous powers and inspire devotion and hope for rescue.

Rachel Taylor Brown's plainspoken, harrowing stories don't betray much about what their author really believes.  But that's art for you.

Fakin’ It in the Sweet Calcutta Rain

My cultural references are just as good as your cultural references.

I'm a big fat faker.

Heck, even that statement is false. I'm not fat at all!

When I read other writers' music criticism, I marvel at the number of artists and bands they refer to, often including lots of bands I've heard of but never heard, as well as bands I've never even heard of, but every one of which — if the tone of the review I'm reading is to be taken seriously — I ought to be thoroughly familiar with.

Almost all of us feel like fakers at times. At job interviews, as creative people, as professionals, on dates — we so often feel like we're making something up in order to impress someone, whether it's an audience or a potential friend, boss, or lover.

One of my personal issues is that because I was born back in 1963, a whole lot of "indie rock" passed me by. The last time I felt fully engaged with a pop-music movement was the early 90s, with the heyday of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains, and my "formative" music is a good deal older than that. So when I review a new recording, the comparisons that spring to mind are older than those a younger reviewer would think of.

But while my references may be a few decades in the past, they're easy for me to come up with, and they're also (I like to think) as apt as any. Which tells me something:

Not a lot changes. There's very little truly new under the sun, especially in popular music. The ways we communicate and connect, and listen to music, have evolved some in the digital age, but the factors that make a good singer good or a memorable song memorable have stayed basically the same. And not just since the 1960s. Since at least Mozart.

So who cares if "Everything's Goin' My Way" on the new Mark Stuart CD reminds me of Leon Russell's stuff from the 60s and early 70s? No doubt it would remind you of something different, maybe something much more recent. My cultural references are just as good as your cultural references. Yours are just as good as mine. Each one of us is just as insecure as the next person. It's natural. Only the stupid are utterly confident. But we needn't be so anxious. Each of us is a fully entitled citizen of the world. As an ancient rocker once wrote:

   California sunlight, sweet Calcutta rain
   Honolulu starbright – the song remains the same.

Music Review: Mark Stuart and the Bastard Sons – Bend in the Road

Mark Stuart makes it sound easy, with or without the Man in Black.

With his former group, the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash, Mark Stuart injected a shot of traditional country into the broad biceps of what was confusingly called "alt-county." Now, with his songwriting chops and reedy baritone intact, he's written a new chapter under the title "Mark Stuart and the Bastard Sons."

"Always been a restless, ramblin' man / Never stayed long in any town / Never could hold a good job down / Always been a restless, ramblin' man." Stuart's one of the few artists who can deliver lines like that with neither irony nor slick Nashville nausea. He does perform over 200 shows a year, after all, and so can claim to actually be a ramblin' man.

That schedule probably helps account for how easy he makes it all sound on this record, from the rockers ("When Love Comes A-Callin'", "Power of a Woman") to a love ballad like "Lonestar, Lovestruck, Blues," where he sings: "Now that I've found what I was looking for / I never had so much to lose." Even when the rambler man comes home, he's attuned to the possibility of loss.

The straightforward minor-key "Gone Like a Raven" is one of my favorite tracks, with its sad-eyed advice. Then Stuart and his ace musicians blast away those blues with a rockabilly beat in "Seven Miles to Memphis." In the infectious rocker "Fireflies" he couches an indictment of big-box commercialism and hyper-connectedness in joyful rock chords:

   The little guy he can't make it any more
   Starbucks and Wal-Mart don't give a fuck about you and us
   Gettin' screwed ain't nothing new
   Bet your ass it's happening to you…
   Fireflies and corn liquor
   Gonna have a little fun tonight
   Find myself a hard-luck woman
   Go dancin' 'neath the pale moonlight

Then everything goes slidy and sloshy in "Everything's Goin' My Way," and the good times are back in unadulterated form.

There's no filler here; it's all good, heartfelt stuff with a handful of great hooks sprinkled in, smartly played by an all-pro but understated band that includes fiddlin', mandolinin', and the cracklin' Lars Albrecht on guitar. Mark Stuart's new chapter is a satisfying summer read.